Class struggles: parent volunteering

When it comes to volunteering at their kids' schools, parents don't always play nice

It’s 10 minutes before the morning bell. There’s the leader of the cool crowd and her posse of “yes men.” There’s a small group hanging back, trying to figure out a way to click with the clique. Others walk right on by the gossip going on at the school gate, not wanting any part of it.

Typical kid behaviour, right? Except these are the parents.

Interacting with other parents at your child’s school can resemble an episode of Survivor. Alliances are made and broken; it’s hard to know whom you can trust; and the strategizing never seems to stop.

Blogs, discussion forums and real-life conversations are rife with references to “those PTA moms.” And it rarely runs along the lines of “Those PTA moms sure are a swell bunch of people.” Instead, parents lament the cliques, gossip and social posturing that permeate parent volunteer groups.

“It’s like being back in elementary school,” says Lisa Gretzky, a mom of two in Windsor, Ont. Gretzky is exasperated by what she’s encountered in a group that’s supposed to be working together to meet common goals. “People talk about each other. They show one face or voice during a meeting and, after they walk out of the room, they’re bashing the decisions that were made. They bicker and snipe and ignore the big things.”

Where’s all this juvenile behaviour coming from? “Every parent brings their own stuff to the table,” says parenting author Ann Douglas, of Peterborough, Ont. “Some people are just stubborn, others may be anxious to show off their skills, or they may just be insecure.”

Whatever the downside, parent groups are an important part of the learning partnership between home and classroom, and schools need volunteers — in spite of the politicking. A variety of voices and personality types at the table can lead to new ideas and greater accomplishments. So don’t let your PTA’s bad rep stop you from getting involved. Here’s the lowdown on what the novice volunteer might encounter, and strategies for making it work.
Role call
Who’s showing up for your PTA meeting? Raise your hand if any of these faces are familiar:

The mother-in-chief: She seems to run everything and everyone.
The volunteer-for-life: She’s the one who abhors change of any kind. (“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”)
The one-track mom: She’s got one pet issue and zones out when the discussion moves on to other things.
The peacemaker: She’s everyone’s friend and wants to know, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

And just like when they were kids, the group will often set their own differences aside and band together to let the newcomer know where she stands. “They don’t want the status quo challenged,” says Calgary mom Sam Ferguson. Ferguson’s involvement with the school council was short-lived; she works days, and the group meets on a weekday afternoon. “They’re running things the way they want, and suggestions, such as meeting in the evenings occasionally so more working parents can attend, are seen as a threat.”

Find yourself
Parents often fall into the roles that they’ve played all their lives. “It’s just like junior high,” says Ferguson. “You can tell who people were when they were in school.” She recognizes herself in it too. “I have no patience for people who complain — it’s a high school mentality. I couldn’t stand it in high school.”

Parents may find help in Rosalind Wiseman’s latest book, Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads. Wiseman, bestselling author and speaker from Washington, DC, presents her own listing and description of different parent personalities. Parent-school groups warrant a whole chapter entitled “If she’s on my committee, I quit.”

“It’s hard to work together in groups,” writes Wiseman. “We volunteer because we want our schools to be better and our kids to get the best.”

Wiseman encourages parents to identify themselves among the Queen Bee Moms, Floaters, Invisibles and others. “It’s common for parents themselves to relate to more than one profile,” says Wiseman. “It’s a place to start.” Naming your own behaviour leads to some self-awareness and knowing how to talk about those issues that affect you.

Father knows best?
Few conversations make reference to “those PTA dads.” Dads show up in much smaller numbers in parent-school groups, and deal with things very differently. “Men don’t get caught up in things,” says Gretzky, whose husband also belongs to the school council. “And women behave differently toward men than they do other women.” Men don’t take things as personally and are more focused on getting the job done.

Dads may be more action oriented, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. “Dads don’t always speak up when they should,” says Wiseman. When they see things they don’t like, they just blow it off. “Dads have to get involved, day in and day out,” she says. “And women have to let them.”
Pick your battles
When your inner 12-year-old is making herself known, you may be tempted to go with the flow — no matter which way things are flowing. “Women usually want to avoid confrontation,” says Douglas. “You don’t want to be wrong. Moms also worry their kids might suffer the fallout if you challenge the wrong person or policy.”

It’s important to choose your battles wisely, but going with the flow doesn’t mean waiting to see which way the wind is blowing. “I’ve seen moms start out in one place, and the minute their best friend disagrees, they change their mind,” says Gretzky. “You never know where they stand.”

Some self-examination can help you decide if it’s time to take a stand. “Think about what triggers you,” says Wiseman. “What is it that other parents do that make you react poorly, and can you react differently?”

How to deal
People like their ego stroked, and issues with the most visible results usually create the most friction. Everyone naturally wants a pat on the back. “No one wants to do the jobs that aren’t easily seen,” says Gretzky. “No one wants to talk about raising standardized test scores, but when it comes to who’s going to buy a card for the teacher, there’s a war.”

But recognition is important. “Parents need to feel appreciated,” says Ferguson. “It makes them more energetic, more likely to contribute.”

Frustration with childish antics might lead to childish responses. Many moms cheered to themselves during an early episode of Desperate Housewives when the Lynette character suggested to a pushy PTA mom that they “take it outside.” But handling confrontation should involve more finesse than that.

“We’re adults, and we have the tools to handle these problems maturely,” says Ferguson. “There are times when you wish you could be more abrupt, but that rarely works.”

Wiseman offers specific scripts and tools for handling difficult situations. “Confrontation is inevitable,” she says. “But parents should speak up. Especially to stop a bully.”

Stick with it
Fed up with trying to figure out how to fit in, most parents’ instinct is to throw in the towel. “It’s not that you don’t want to be there,” says Gretzky, “but it’s discouraging. You need a very strong personality, a strong sense of purpose, to be able to continue.”

“We don’t want our kids to get the message that quitting is the natural solution,” says Douglas. “Getting along with difficult people is something they’re going to learn from us.” When playground politics keep people from volunteering, it reinforces the myth that those in the in-crowd are better parents for all they contribute.

Having clearly defined goals and setting boundaries will also help you avoid getting caught in the web of personalities and power struggles. “And apologize when necessary,” says Douglas. Everyone’s capable of making a mistake, speaking too sharply or getting carried away when their own buttons are pushed. Saying “I’m sorry” will remind you that you have the maturity to handle difficult situations.

Working on specific projects, while avoiding meetings, has been the solution for Ferguson. “We have found positive people who show up at events, and it’s a lot more fun. We’re involved enough that our son can see we support his school.”

As much as volunteering may seem like grade school all over again, remember that you’re a grown-up now. It takes all kinds to make the world go round, and a little patience and detachment go a long way. With all provinces now recommending (or even requiring) some sort of parent group presence in schools, you have the opportunity and the right to contribute. Even if it doesn’t score you a seat at the cool kids’ table.

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