News from the Illinois PTA Convention—Leadership

conv logo 2At the 114th Annual Illinois PTA Convention, National PTA Executive Director Nathan R. Monell gave a presentation on Tomorrow’s Leaders: Attract, Develop, and Orient Leaders through Transition that focused on an issue that every PTA faces—recruiting and developing new leaders. He began his presentation with the PTA mission:

To make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children.

He asked the audience how does engaging and empowering families and communities help make every child’s potential a reality? The audience’s answers echoed what research has shown, that engaged families lead to children who are more successful in school and better prepared for life and that communities that value education are economically more prosperous. It really does take a village to raise a child.

Selling the “Why” of PTA

Mr. Monell then asked the audience about why they originally became involved with PTA and why they are involved now. The reasons for originally starting with PTA were the reasons most people give: to help their child, to learn what was happening at the school, or to improve the school. The reasons for currently being involved with PTA were broader in scope: to help all children, to make a difference, or to improve all schools and communities.

He tied why people are involved with PTA with Simon Sinek’s TED talk on leadership. Sinek said, “You want to attract people who believe what you believe. They don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Thus, to recruit new members and new leaders, it is essential that we share not just what our PTAs do for our schools, but also why we do what we do.

PTA Values

There are five key values that PTA holds, and successful PTA units are usually strong in all five of them. These values are:

  • Collaboration: PTA values partnerships with teachers, principals, and school districts, with other organizations, and with our communities.
  • Commitment: PTA is one of the largest volunteer organizations in the world, and the reason people volunteer for PTA is a commitment and dedication to the PTA mission.
  • Diversity: PTA values diversity because we cannot speak for every child if we do not accept that every person brings strengths and a unique perspective to our association.
  • Respect: PTA respects every member as having an important voice in our association, helping to provide new ideas and connections.
  • Accountability: PTA leaders are responsible for ensuring that the PTA mission informs everything that the PTA does.

Vision for the Future

So what are the tools and talents that have been effective in seeing our mission and vision realized? There are three key tools in moving from values, vision, and mission to effective PTA leadership:

  • Communication
  • Influence
  • Teamwork

The key to effective communication is to ask open-ended questions, to listen to the answers, to appreciate the feedback, and to affirm the value of their voice. By doing so, we can empower people to participate in joint problem solving, encourage better connections between people, and engage other people to want to help PTA leaders.

Exercising influence is a critical skill for PTA leaders. By developing the ability to influence the beliefs of others and using that influence to promote the mission of PTA, leaders can become talent magnets, bringing together a team of believers who inspire collaboration with other people and other organizations. A crucial part of wielding influence is developing a “yes and” strategy when barriers are presented. That means that when an idea is brought forward, a PTA leader doesn’t say, “No, we tried that before, and it didn’t work.” Instead, the answer should be, “Yes, that’s a good idea and something we’ve tried before. When we did it last time, these are the problems we ran into. Has our situation changed since then so that those are not problems, or can we think of new ways to solve those problems?”

Teamwork is the third key tool of PTA leaders, and the PTA values are essential in building an effective team. PTA leaders should be seeking out individuals who have a passion for the mission of PTA, and then use the communications skills above to make connections and to identify the skills that others bring to the PTA. PTA leaders must encourage others and influence them to bring their passion and strengths to the PTA leadership team. Finally, PTA leaders need to reach out to diverse populations for new ideas and learning opportunities.

Expanding PTA Leadership

It is not enough to build a PTA leadership team. You must put in place processes and procedures to help your team members to be successful. Essential parts of those processes are:

  • Orientation
  • Mentoring
  • Inclusion

When a new volunteer joins your PTA team, you need to make sure that they understand how the PTA functions and how they fit in with the rest of the team. Orientation is how you accomplish that. As a PTA leader, you should engage with those interested in joining the PTA, explain not just the mission of the PTA but the reason for the work, and determine what goals and tasks best fit their skills and time. You need to make sure that they understand the connection between their role and the intended results so that they have a sense of what success looks like. You can’t put someone in charge of a fundraising event, tell them that $12,000 was raised last year, and then after the event say, “Last year’s fundraising was a disaster. The $12,500 you helped raise was our second worst fundraising event ever.” You must lay out the goals and expectations ahead of time.

Another effective tool in making PTA team members successful is mentoring new board members. Successful mentoring of new PTA leaders requires a plan for ongoing communications, whether that is pairing a new leader with an experienced one or having other PTA leaders check in regularly to answer questions and provide advice. Effective mentoring helps a new PTA leader understand how their work is contributing to the mission of the PTA, reassures the leadership team that the new leader is making progress, and ensures that the new leader is not losing their passion for PTA because they feel unappreciated or do not see how they are contributing. Finally, PTAs need to offer leadership training to encourage new leaders to build their PTA skills, making it possible to move into positions of greater responsibility.

One PTA leader at the workshop shared how their PTA had implemented a mentoring program for new leaders. They had noticed that it was not unusual for someone to chair an event for many years in a row, especially if their children were spaced out well, resulting in a leader running a program for a decade before moving on with their last child and only leaving behind a procedure book. To solve this problem, the PTA implemented a standing rule that no one could be on an event’s leadership team for more than four years. The first year was to serve as an apprentice for the existing event leader, followed by serving as the event leader in years two and three, and concluding the fourth year as a mentor to the incoming leader.

Finally, inclusion can be an effective tool in supporting PTA leadership. This can be done by inviting potential PTA leaders to be a guest at a PTA board meeting, to serve as a committee member, to be part of a brainstorming process on new programs or initiatives, to be involved in planning a new activity or program, or to participate in training. Illinois PTA training courses are open to any PTA member, not just elected PTA officers or chairpersons. Likewise, National PTA has created several online training courses that can be taken by any PTA member.

Building a Legacy of Leadership

Building a successful PTA leadership team is a significant accomplishment, but a PTA is at its best when it has built a legacy of leadership to sustain those successful leadership practices. Building a successful legacy involves being aware of what has already been accomplished, demonstrating our commitment to the children of today, and appealing to our next generation of leaders. It requires focusing on the PTA mission in everything that we do. Most of all, it needs us to share and demonstrate that which keeps all PTA leaders going—passion.

Mr. Monell concluded his workshop with four questions for every PTA leader to ask themselves:

  • How do you contribute to the sustainability of PTA?
  • Are you moving in the direction that will help PTA grow?
  • Would your passion show in your “elevator speech” to engage new leaders?
  • Are you leaving PTA in better shape than when you arrived?

Effective PTA Communications

Multi-Ethnic group of children outdoors, arms raisedWe live in a media-rich environment with smartphones and the internet providing information in an almost constant stream. PTAs used to be able to send home a newsletter with a brightly-colored front page and know that families would see it, but the “Backpack Express” is much less effective these days. So how can your PTA’s communication be heard in this constant clamor for attention? How can your PTA communicate effectively with your school community?

Building a PTA Community

When you think about your PTA community, who do you see? Is it just your members? Is it all the families in the school? Does your PTA community include teachers and administrators? What about those in the neighborhood around your school? What about grandparents who live in another state? An important part of effective PTA communications is building your PTA community. That means reaching out and engaging everyone in that community.

Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to PTAs to help engage your community. While newsletters may still be a part of your PTA communication plan, e-mail lists, websites, and social media provide additional tools to connect your PTA with those who care about the students at your school regardless of where they live.

Your PTA’s Communication Plan

There are a variety of reasons that PTAs need to communicate:

  • To inform members about upcoming events
  • To solicit volunteers
  • To advocate
  • To share their PTA’s successful events and programs
  • To thank those who have helped out

All of these reasons have one common thread—to tell your PTA’s story. If you approach your PTA communications with this goal in mind, you are providing vibrant descriptions of how your audience can engage with your PTA and how your PTA is making a difference in your school and in your community. Your PTA communications become one of the most effective tools in bringing new members into your PTA.

To effectively tell your PTA’s story, you need a communications plan. A communications plan should include:

  • All of the communication channels your PTA will be using (print, website, e-mail, social media, VolunteerSpot, etc.)
  • Your PTA’s communication goals
  • Your target audience(s)
  • The frequency of communication on each channel
  • The deadlines for submissions for each communication
  • A list of who will be submitting content
  • A budget for your communication tools (printing costs, domain registration, etc.)
  • An evaluation plan to improve your communications over time

Georgia PTA has a useful video presentation on building your communications plan that can walk you through the process of creating a communication plan and the basics of implementing some communication channels. North Carolina PTA also has a video on creating and executing a PTA communications plan.

As you develop your plan, remember that a diverse school community needs a diverse array of communications to reach out to everyone. Consider how to connect with families of English language learners or those without internet access (or only through their phone). Think about how you can make those families unable to attend PTA programs and events at the school still feel connected to the PTA.

Your communications plan should also incorporate the rules and policies that your school or district may require. Be aware of photo restrictions, sharing children’s names, and other policies that might affect your PTA communications.

Social Media

Many PTAs have given up on printed newsletters and PTA websites in favor of e-mail lists and social media. A Facebook organization page allows a PTA to share things that would have gone in a newsletter or on a website. Twitter allows a PTA to share timely, relevant information with its followers, link to Facebook or website posts, use hashtags for events, and share important reminders or quick photos at events. These and other social media tools provide a powerful way to get your PTA story out and to connect with a broad audience.

But as Spiderman taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. Be sure to have a social media policy in place specifying who has access to and responsibility for your PTA’s social media presence. Make sure that more than one person has the login information to your social media accounts. Ensure that those who will be posting to Facebook, tweeting, or using other social media are aware of any restrictions on sharing photos that your school district has. National PTA has a sample social media policy that you can use as a template for your PTA.

Blowing Your PTA’s Horn

Your PTA’s communication should not be restricted to just your school community. Be sure to share your PTA story to your community as a whole. Send out press releases announcing your upcoming PTA events. Many school districts have a public relations or communications person whose job is to submit press releases to the local media, and they may be willing to submit releases on your PTA’s behalf or can provide a list of media contacts. While you may not end up with a news story on your event, you may have a newspaper photographer stop by to take some pictures or have a TV station record some footage that will run under their closing credits.

By communicating with your broader community, you have the opportunity to make the public aware of the great things your PTA is doing to improve the lives of children. Remember, if your PTA isn’t telling its story and sharing its good news, no one else will either. And with increased awareness of the positive effect your PTA is having comes the opportunity to partner with businesses and other organizations in your community, whether through grants, co-promotion and cooperation on events, and the ability to spread your message to a wider audience through speaking opportunities, guest blog posts, and articles in non-PTA newsletters.

Communication Tools for Your PTA

A primary communication tool should be the Communications Quick Reference Guide, a part of the online PTA Back-to-School Kit. Here you will find information on PTA branding, newsletters, websites, social media, marketing and media relations, photography and videography, and much more. Be sure to also look for the Illinois PTA piece on the Role of a Membership Marketing Chairman, which includes a sample press release and social media guidelines.

For PTA e-mail communications, a simple free e-mail list from Google, Yahoo, or other provider might be all your PTA needs. However, Benchmark provides free e-mail marketing for PTAs, allowing you to send e-mails to 100,000 contacts up to seven times a month for free. In addition, your PTA would have access to all of the advanced functions, including segmented e-mail lists, real-time reports on who opened your e-mail or clicked on a link in it, surveys and polls, sign-up forms, and more. Illinois PTA currently uses Benchmark for its Weekend Update e-mail.

For signing up volunteers, Illinois PTA has partnered with VolunteerSpot to provide local PTAs, councils, districts, and regions with a free premium package upgrade (up to $300 in value). The premium package provides unlimited custom group pages and up to 15 assistant organizers (so one person doesn’t have to run sign-ups for every event), up to five custom registration fields (e.g., t-shirt size), and more. You also get the standard reminder and thank you e-mails to those who sign up as well. To take advantage of this member benefit, follow the directions on our member benefits page.

Navigating Illinois PTA’s New Advocacy Tools

You may not think of yourself as an advocate, but if you’ve ever spoken to your child’s teacher about a problem your child was having, if your PTA has ever brought a concern to your school’s principal, if you’ve ever spoken up at a school board meeting, you are an advocate.

Illinois PTA has new advocacy tools to make being an advocate for your child to state and federal legislators easier than ever. You can find these new tools under the Take Action item on the Advocacy page of the Illinois PTA website. Here’s a tour of the four tools, powered by Voter Voice.


The Actions tool is the home for advocacy campaigns, legislative blog posts, voting scorecards, and other advocacy information. At early points in legislature sessions, many bills before the Illinois legislature are shell bills—bills that have no rules or laws specified that are simply placeholders for future legislation. Once the legislature puts actual language into these bills, we make an assessment of the bill based on our platform, continuing positions, or resolutions. Depending on the point in the session, we may have one or two advocacy campaigns active at a time. Once an advocacy campaign begins, an alert will be sent to everyone on our email list. You can expect to see an advocacy campaign in the coming weeks. When you click on a campaign, you will have information on the issue, Illinois PTA’s position, and a ready-to-go letter or e-mail that you can modify and send to your legislators.

Blog posts provide information on various legislative issues and successes. The legislative scorecard debuted this weekend, and provides you with information on how Illinois legislators voted on several bills that Illinois PTA took positions on. You can search based on your zip code to find your legislators, or you can search on their name. There are separate tabs for the Illinois House and Illinois Senate.

Find Officials

The Find Officials tool lets you enter your zip code (and street address, if your zip code is divided into more than one legislative district) to identify your state and federal legislators. The search result provides you with your federal (President, Vice President, Senators, and Representative) and state (Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, State Attorney General, State Treasurer, State Comptroller, State Senator, and State Representative) elected officials.

Each official’s name is a clickable link that provides their office address in both Washington, DC  and Springfield, their local district office address, phone and fax numbers for both offices, e-mail address, website, social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), committees they serve on, office staff and duties, and more. Click the checkbox next to one or more names, and then use the Compose Message button to send a message directly to those officials.

Find Legislation

The Find Legislation tool lets you search for legislation based on key words (e.g., “bullying”). Doing so brings up all legislation on the issue from the current term of the Illinois legislature. If you want to switch to federal legislation on the topic, use the Change Jurisdiction dropdown menu in the title bar and hit Search again. You can use the menu again to switch back to Illinois legislation.

The search results present you with clickable links to each bill. Each link provides you with the bill’s title, sponsors and cosponsors, actions taken, and a link to the bill’s page at the Congressional or Illinois General Assembly website.

Below the search tool is a View Key Legislation link. This link takes you to a list of bills that the Illinois PTA is tracking and our position on the bill. Each of these bills is a link that provides you with the same information as the search tool.

Quick Sign Up

The Quick Sign Up tool makes it easy for you to add your e-mail to the Illinois PTA Legislative Advocacy Network. Simply enter your e-mail address and zip code, and when there is an Illinois PTA advocacy campaign under way, you’ll get a quick e-mail with information about the issue and a link to a ready-to-go letter to contact your legislator. We do not sell or provide your e-mail address to other organizations, and your zip code is used only to connect your legislators to your e-mail address. That allows us to provide you with a customized letter depending on whether your representative is already supporting, opposing, or is undecided on an issue or to target only those with representatives on a specific committee.

These new advocacy tools provide you with a simple and powerful way to contact your elected representatives to speak up on behalf of your child. Be sure to sign up for the Illinois PTA Legislative Advocacy Network so legislators will hear the voice of parents and teachers when it comes to our children.

10 Ways to Get Community Support for Your School

As school budgets continue to shrink, school districts are turning to their local communities to enhance children’s education. The Family Education website has a slide show of 10 Ways to Get Community Support for Your School.
Their ten ideas are:

  1. Organize workplace tours
  2. Have a career dayChild And Adult Reading
  3. Volunteer reading programs
  4. Interview local community members
  5. Attend community events
  6. Organize summer learning activities
  7. Be active on social media sites
  8. Arrange face-to-face interaction
  9. Encourage use of school facilities
  10. Organize special programs for star students

Engaging your community in your school and PTA provides an opportunity for those who do not usually interact with the school district to see the great things going on in the schools as well as a chance to see the needs that the school may have. Such engagement can be beneficial to building support for school referenda to build new buildings, renovate existing ones, or increase school funding. Be sure to check out the article for details on each of the ten points above