Guest Column

Hot Dog Queen: My Life in PTA

by Carol A. Woodbury

When my first child was born, I decided to take a break from my career in education to concentrate on my parenting. This conscious decision to make both career and financial sacrifices came from my work as an educator. As a classroom teacher, I knew first hand that family involvement made a difference in my students. Teachers always can tell when a child comes from a home where the family reads with and talks to their child regularly.

I enjoyed my time with my child, but I also missed school. When my son entered kindergarten, it provided the perfect opportunity to become involved in education again but from a different perspective. After several years as a professional educator, I was now the parent.

My husband and I began to go to meetings of the parents’ group and family activities at his school. The spring fair was one of the first I attended, working alongside one of the school’s 3 rd-grade teachers most of the day. I figured she must be a wonderful teacher to give up a Saturday to work at this fair for the benefit of children.

An Active Role

Our parents group decided to join the state and national PTA. We discovered many advantages of being part of a larger state and national organization. We saw this as an opportunity to become a “professional” parent group. That change catapulted me on a learning adventure I could never have imagined. I became a student of family involvement. Before long I was an elected leader of the PTA, serving as president of the Massachusetts PTA and more recently on the governing board of the National PTA.

Working side-by-side with other parents, I learned many lessons about family involvement. Most families want a great education for their children and want their children to be successful. They want to know how to help their children, to be involved and to make a positive difference in their child’s school. Families need support and information to help them understand the various childhood developmental stages, such as adolescence. They feel better just knowing they are not alone as their child grows and changes.

When I returned to my career as a kindergarten and 1 st-grade teacher, then as a central-office administrator and superintendent, I found my experiences as an active PTA member helped me to be more effective at implementing high-quality family involvement. Because I was accustomed to being involved as a parent, it seemed natural to get involved with my district’s parent group when I was promoted to superintendent.

Not long into my current position, I volunteered to sell the hot dogs at the PTA’s Chili Bake-Off. The parents group created a special apron just for me that read “Hot Dog Queen.” For several hours, I served up food and chatted casually with families as they came through the line.

A few days later, much to my surprise, a letter to the editor showed up in the local paper. A grandfather, who had come through the food line, sent in a most complimentary letter to the editor telling everyone how great it was that I was there and that the superintendent had served him a hot dog. The final line in the editorial said, “This is the right superintendent for us.” I later learned that the commentator had a reputation for frequently firing off less-than-complimentary letters to the newspaper. As the months went on, I saw him at many school events and when his second grandchild entered school the next year, he sent me a video of his first days of school with a wonderful supportive letter about what a great school we had.

An Obvious Solution

The relationships school administrators build with families and the relationships those families build with one another are the key to successful partnerships. Families have a desire to belong. They need to feel accepted and respected. By getting involved in my district’s PTA, I had the opportunity to work with families on enjoyable projects.

In this kind of environment, families and school administrators see another side of each other. For administrators it is an occasion to build trust with the people you serve and to build relationships outside the one dictated by your title. You have a chance to answer questions casually. This two-way communication helps families learn about your vision, dedication and commitment.

Through PTA, I learned about research supporting family involvement and its positive impact on student achievement. I discovered a great book, Building Successful Partnerships, developed by the National PTA and published by the National Education Service. The book summarizes the research on family involvement and uses the research-based National Standards for Parent/Family Involvement Programs to provide ideas for schools interested in implementing family involvement programs that will raise student achievement. If you are not sure how to get started, this book is a great resource.

Personal Involvement

Personally, I would suggest every superintendent go to a parents’ meeting in the district, roll up your sleeves and ask how you can help in their next public event. You will be amazed at the response. If you’re serious about raising student achievement, family involvement is the obvious solution.

Carol Woodbury is superintendent of the Monson Public Schools, 29 Thompson St., Monson, MA 01057. E-mail: woodburyc@monsonschools.com