Patricia Heaton, who as Frankie Heck on “The Middle” is intimidated by officials in her children’s schools, recently confessed in a TV interview that she wished she had more time to attend PTA meetings for her own four children but finds it difficult because of her career.
I know and I empathize, both with Patricia Heaton and the many other parents who are stressed and scheduled to the limit. You work full-time and want to be home with your children in the evening; you have a newborn; your husband gets home at 9 p.m.; you’re a single mother. There are so many reasons that parents are unable to attend both daytime and evening meetings.
In a perfect world, all parents would attend PTA and board of education meetings regularly and stay on top of all the school news that way. But we know that doesn’t happen. In fact, I have attended meetings where fewer than 10 parents were present – out of a potential 20,000! Parents who work long hours are not available during the day and may not be inclined to leave home in the evening. So what’s a concerned parent to do?
First, become intimately familiar with your school, school district and PTA Websites. PTA Websites should give you the names of the PTA officers, meeting and event information, and issues for which the PTA is advocating. PTA presidents are a great source of information, so keep in touch with him or her if you can’t attend meetings. In many districts, the PTA president meets regularly with the superintendent and has an inside track on the latest developments. PTA presidents consider it their responsibility to share what they know, and are often frustrated that so few parents attend meetings. So be sure to stay in contact with your PTA president.
If school and school district Websites are good – and nowadays many are – they will provide you with a wealth of information that will be easy to navigate. I should warn you that some are not user-friendly, but with some effort you can usually find what you need to know. For example, you should be able to access the names and contact information of all of the important players from teachers to board members. Additionally, you should be able to find important dates, time schedules, meeting information and minutes, policies and procedures, and news.
It is in the area of news that school Websites present a one-sided view, focusing on the accolades and accomplishments that enhance the district’s reputation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! As the Public Information Officer and PR person in two prestigious Long Island districts, it was my job to spin the news in a positive way — and that’s what you’ll find on your school district Website. It’s the school district’s job to present itself in the best possible light.
As a result, if you want to find out about the burning issues and controversies in your district with all sides represented, learn whether there are local weekly newspapers that cover your schools. They generally send a reporter to every board meeting and write about it. In addition, there may be editorials and letters to the editor that offer other points of view. Some stories rise to the level of coverage by a daily newspaper, such as Newsday, or a TV station, such as Cablevision’s News12. In the last couple of years, the Patch, the AOL-owned hyper-local on-line newspaper, has been covering news in many communities across the country. It presents comprehensive news about the school districts in its coverage area, as well as the opportunity for readers to comment on stories.
What messages and what kind of pressure did these young people get that made them abandon common sense, ethics, and the law in the pursuit of stellar SAT scores they believed they were incapable of getting on their own? What beliefs did Jobs have that gave him the confidence to drop out of college and invent products that truly transformed the way that we live, learn, communicate and work?
I suspect the Great Neck teenagers felt pressure to achieve – from their peers and from their parents. They are certainly not alone in succumbing to that pressure. You have only to watch Toddlers and Tiaras to know that parental pressure has no age or geographical boundaries. Does anyone really believe that three-year-olds aspire to be beauty queens and actually enjoy having false eyelashes glued onto their faces?
The high school students who paid someone to take their SATs for them had swallowed a bill of goods that led them to believe that to be successful, they needed to attend a top tier college. Likely, they thought they would forever be defined by the college they attended and their prospects for future success would be set in stone their freshman year. They did not have confidence in their own skills or abilities, believing instead that the top tier schools they attended defined success.
It never occurred to them that they could distinguish themselves at a third tier school, or even that they could transfer from Nassau Community College after two years. Ironically, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, about 775 U.S. colleges and universities – including some first rate schools — are now test optional. Some schools exempt students who meet grade-point average or class rank criteria, while others require SAT scores only for placement purposes.
Contrast the mind-set of these young people with the advice Steve Jobs gave to the graduating class of 2005 at Stanford University:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
“You’ve got to find what you love.”
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…”
What can parents learn from these words?
Stop pressuring your children to live up to some ideal standard. If they get a 93% on a test, don’t ask them what happened to the other seven points. If they want to and can get into an Ivy League school on their own power and desire, that’s great. But don’t keep telling them they have to go to Harvard or Yale. And please, don’t make them think they have failed if they can’t reach that goal – just because you want it. There are tens of thousands of high schools in the U.S. and each has one valedictorian and one salutatorian — and all are trying for the same nine top tier schools.
Encourage your children to live their own lives. Don’t pressure them to live out your dreams; let them have their own. Enable them to become the best they are capable of being, not the best your neighbor’s child is capable of being.
Help them find their passion and to pursue it. If they follow their interests, they will not only distinguish themselves but also be true to themselves.
Most of all, children of all ages need unconditional love, ethics and values from their parents. As hard as schools may try, they can’t teach character education without parental agreement and support.
Steve Jobs never finished college. And most successful people didn’t have perfect SAT scores. Without character, commitment, and emotional intelligence it really doesn’t matter where your kids go to school.
We know that research indicates that students whose parents are actively involved in their schools have better grades, attendance, behavior, and graduation rates. But PTA membership is a personal investment you make not only for your child, but for yourself too.
Many opportunities await you at your next PTA meeting. Advocating for a worthwhile mission, having a positive impact on your schools, and supporting amazing events for students are the obvious benefits of PTA involvement. But I have also witnessed more subtle perks that may come to active parents.
Here are five things that you might not know about today’s PTA:
1. Volunteer and get access.
Being an active PTA member gives you legitimate reasons to have input and to be in your children’s school during the school day. For example, do you want to have a say in booking a children’s author, a play or a music or science program for your children’s school? Then join your PTA’s cultural arts committee. You will work closely with your principal and teachers to plan enriching events that PTA fundraising supports. As a member of the committee, you will be able to attend programs to assess their success.
By becoming a known quantity to school staff, you will get a birds-eye view of what’s going on and principal, faculty and staff will know you by name. This will come in handy should you ever have a question or concern. Similarly, you may be asked for your perspective as a parent when issues occur. It’s sort of like the classic Peter Sellers movie, Being There. Because you are there, you may become a go-to parent.
2. Contribute and make friends.
You will meet like-minded parents who have children of comparable ages, with whom you will share similar concerns, goals, and hopes for your children. You will form close friendships and you will help one another through the sharing of ideas. If you are new to an area or your first child is starting school, PTA is a good place to meet people.
3. Give and receive much more.
PTA provides you with a wonderful outlet and platform for your passions. For example, if you are passionate about healthy eating, you can join the PTA’s health and wellness committee, and exert influence not only on the school lunch program, but also on classroom practices, such as giving candy for rewards.
If you are a parent of a child with special needs, you are probably already a strong advocate for special education. It is essential that you join SEPTA, Special Education PTA. There you will meet like-minded parents and professionals who will provide you with a support network, cutting edge information and strategies to help your child succeed. You will have the benefit of attending presentations by outside experts. And you will be able to forge positive relationships with district special education administrators, who attend SEPTA meetings. This will give you easy access to these professionals, should you have questions or concerns.
4. Be a player and get the “skinny.”
You will reap enormous benefits if you rise to the highest levels of PTA leadership. If you are the PTA president of your school or a member of your District PTA Council, you will meet with your Superintendent of Schools on a regular basis. He or she will update you on news, issues and problems and ask for your support. If you are a person who likes to be in the know, you will be informed of everything from district accomplishments to drug busts. You will have the information first and will be the one to share it with your members. The superintendent will also solicit your opinion and may ask for you to poll your members on various issues, such as proposed budget cuts.
As a key stakeholder, you may also be asked to serve on interview committees, citizens’ advisory committees, and task forces. The superintendent may also recruit you to help plan district-wide events, and to request that PTA help sponsor them.
5. Hone your skills and show what you can do.
The more you give of yourself and the more you hone your skills, the more valuable you will become to your PTA, your school, your district and community. The seeds you plant may bear fruit in unexpected ways. Is your main job CEO of your household for the foreseeable future? Then why not put your accounting expertise to work as a treasurer? Or use your organizing skills to plan events? Utilizing your background and experience can help close gaps in your resume. Continue to dazzle everyone with your generous contribution of your talent, time and energy, and your volunteer experience could lead to paid employment!