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Putting the "Student" back into PTSA

Myrdin Thompson

My son, Seth, is a student member of his middle school’s PTSA. But it means more to him than being just another name on the roster and the potential of his school receiving an award for membership.

Here’s why:

Like many parents out there, I’m sure when you attended your first middle school open house you walked straight over to the PTA or parent group table to find out how to continue being engaged and involved in your child’s education. After all, you’ve just spent the last SIX years (maybe SEVEN if your child attended preschool, like mine did) being the go to “room parent”, the go field trip chaperone, the go to for extra school supplies person. You know what I mean. If you were anything like me, you probably gave each of your child’s teachers your cell number, your home number, your email, and  your facebook account so that they would keep you in the loop about your child’s educational and emotional/social progress. You were the parent already poised to have that PEP talk, in fact, you probably initiated it at some point. Every time you were in the building, a staff person or teacher approached you to ask for help, or you approached them and offered assistance. You’ve been on PTA since you can remember (and there are days you’d like to forget, trust me, I know) and you are ready (after the summer break) to walk into your child’s middle school, and GET TO WORK. After all, you have so much to offer. In fact, the principal and all the teachers have written you letters of recommendation. So you walk, wait, no you skip excitedly to the PTSA table, money for dues in hand, and you join, and for the first time your child is able to join and you feel connected. To the school, to your student, to your community.

And…then what? You slowly discover that middle school is a whole new world. Not just for your child, but for you as a parent. You find that you are not the room parent, because, well, there really is no need for one parent since the teachers teach in a team, and your child floats from one space to the next, like flotsam caught mid-tide. You don’t need to chaperone, because somehow you missed the sign up sheet for the field trip (it’s at the bottom of your son’s backpack and oops never made it to your desk) and your services are no longer required. You don’t buy the extra supplies because, hey, these are middle school students and they don’t need extra crayons. They use flash drives and laptops. The teachers have your number (boy, do they have it) but don’t need to call since they can email you in a mass email about projects or direct you to the school website if you need details about those events.

So you now ask, “what is my role”? And, more importantly, what is your child’s role within the PTSA? Here’s what I have learned. As a parent advocate this is the time when I must remain engaged in my child’s education. It is not the time to pack it in and let the schools completely take over. The hardest years are ahead for my tween. Emotionally and socially he is going to need me now more than ever before. So I’ve got to “be in the loop” about what is happening in his school and his community. I’m no longer a room parent. I’m now a “whole school” parent. If I have the time I need to find out what committees the PTSA may need me to serve on, or what committees the school has in place to address testing, health, art, and bullying. My time can now be devoted to assisting with service learning projects that prepare our children today to be leaders tomorrow. Does your PTSA have a connection with student leadership opportunities? If not, maybe that’s what you need to focus on. Because it is essential that middle schools involve students as more than just a name on a PTSA membership roster. Okay, so now we go back to my son Seth’s thoughts on membership.

Seth wanted to attend the National PTA convention in Memphis, TN, with me this past summer. Unfortunately we weren’t able to make that happen, but here were his two reasons why it was important for him to go.

  • His first: because he wanted to learn more about PTA so that he could, and I quote, “support you in your PTA work.” Wow. He wanted to learn so he could engage with me in something I engage with for him. 
  • His second? Because, and again I quote “who better understands what my friends need than I do since I am a student. You always say you are working to better my education. Why not ask me what we think needs improving and ask us to help make those changes.” Wow again. He wanted to go in order to be an ADVOCATE for his peers.

So, let’s be honest. Middle School PTSA is not just about you and your need to be involved in your child’s life. It is about letting your child be involved in his (or her) life and be connected to their school community. And letting them know that you support their efforts. Are you needed in the PTSA? Absolutely. There are a multitude of projects and programs that will need your creativity, your assistance, your energy, your drive. But you need to make sure that those projects and programs best serve the needs of your entire student population. When I write to my elected officials asking them to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act (U.S. Senator Lincoln’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, S 3307), I’m not doing it because I eat the school’s breakfast or lunches. I’m doing it because my children do, and I want them to have the best nutritional opportunities available so they will be prepared to learn. So if I’m doing this work for my children, shouldn’t I include my children in the work? Because the PTA is about “everychild.onevoice.” And that voice includes our students. PTSA involvement gives them practical experience with public speaking, decision making and planning, creating budgets, reporting and documenting their efforts and results.

So as school begins and you walk, wait skip, into your child’s middle school and  sign up to be a PTSA member, don’t forget to bring your child’s dues as well. Make sure that the PTSA has a place for students at the table, that they engage those children in the conversation. That students are encouraged to serve on the PTSA board, to attend PTSA legislative training, to go to school board meetings, to the State Capitol, to write and call elected officials. Your new role in the PTA is no longer just making sure that Teacher Appreciation Week goes off without a hitch (although for the sake of harmony please don’t forget Teacher Appreciation Week altogether. Make sure to provide a nice lunch and bring those lattes in!) it is making sure that all our students are prepared to be part of their larger community. That they understand the motto, “everychild.onevoice” is not just spoken by us about them, but is spoken by them about themselves.

Myrdin Thompson is the Kentucky Mom Congress delegate.