When Richard Gray was elected president of the Malliford Elementary PTO, he aspired to forge a constructive relationship with the school’s principal, Ms. Rutherford, although he disliked her approach and policies. But during his stint as PTO president, his chilly relationship with Ms. Rutherford rapidly deteriorated into intense hostility, with bitter consequences for the school community, as well as his marriage, his son, his reputation and his life.
Although Richard Gray and the other inhabitants of Malliford Elementary are fictional characters in the novel Chain Gang Elementary (Thornbriar Press), by Jonathan Grant, many of the characters’ missteps are all too real.
While the book is not autobiographical, Grant is a former PTA co-president. He initially intended to write a non-fiction guide for parent leaders. But he ultimately decided he could make a bigger impact on readers with a cautionary tale. He considers the book a “how not-to guide” for parents and administrators.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Grant and asked what advice he would give to parents who want to avoid Richard's fate.
The advice that you received on the playground still applies today. The dominant message in Chain Gang Elementary is that parents (particularly parent leaders) and administrators have to get along. Parents should check their animosity at the door and keep their conversations with administrators and teachers positive and productive.
For example, if your child is upset about an incident that occurred at school, ask the teacher about the situation rather than accusing them of wrong-doing.
“Parents need to stow their anger and remember their child may be part of the problem,” Grant says. “Don’t assume that your six-year-old child, who has their emotions and fears at stake, is going to tell you objectively what happened.”
Similarly, administrators should take a step back and listen to parents instead of constantly pushing their own agendas. Parents often bring valuable insight to the table. For example, when a parent expresses a concern, the administrator should address the cause of the issue instead of appeasing the individual parent.
“School systems I’ve seen are more interested in fixing 100 squeaky wheels than in going back to the assembly line and making adjustments on the assembly line that prevent the squeaky wheels from being produced,” Grant says.
He speaks from experience. When Grant had an issue with a school policy, the school responded by making his child exempt from the policy, rather than re-evaluating its merit.
PTOs and PTAs should advocate for parents to ensure administrators take their concerns seriously. “Schools really marginalize any complaint if an individual parent brings it in,” Grant says.
Meanwhile, principals should publish their policies to ensure fairness to all students and parents. And when rules and policies are established, principals should adhere to them. “Nothing makes parents crazier than loopholes,” Grant says.
A PTO/PTA president who has tried to communicate with the school principal but faces an impasse should invite a third party in to facilitate the discussion, such as a district administrator, Grant suggests.
Shun Teacher Shopping
The practice of teacher shopping – when a parent demands a specific teacher for their child – is rampant at Malliford and has serious consequences.
Grant has witnessed the negative effects of teacher shopping and says it’s “damaging to the whole system.” He advises parents to avoid teacher shopping and suggests principals disallow it.
Sometimes teachers will receive a reputation that’s undeserved, so parents need to keep an open mind, Grant adds.
Volunteer for the Right Reasons
Volunteer to lead the PTA because you want to help and support the school community, not because you want special treatment for your child.
“If you approach being PTA president as a humbling experience, that’s a good thing,” Grant says. “Try very hard to put yourself in other people’s shoes.”
As a former PTA co-president, Grant offered up three ways PTAs can improve their schools:
1.) Facilitate Volunteerism: Organize work days on weekends to give parents who don’t normally volunteer a chance to be involved.
2.) Encourage Reading: Grant’s PTA invited a local librarian to an “open house” to accept library card applications from parents. “Children emulate their parents. They need to see parents reading,” Grant says.
3.) Discourage Electronics: Organize a “No Electronics Week,” during which students must pledge to avoid TV, videogames, iPods and other electronic devices. The goal is to promote an appreciation for reading and other activities that foster a child’s growth and development.
For more information on Chain Gang Elementary, visit www.chaingangelementary.com.