The Humanist Dilemma: Can I School a Bossy Member of Our PTA?

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Shouted Down: I’m an active member of my child’s public elementary school Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). Our group has made an extraordinary difference, turning a once-failing school into one people are jockeying to get their kids into. All this in just the course of a few years thanks to parents who’ve devoted huge amounts of time and money. We have many dedicated, committed parents involved.

Right now one of the most active, however, is a very domineering personality. She has a booming voice and jumps in instantly, supporting or opposing ideas before the person speaking can even finish a sentence. She will also announce that we’re done with a topic and shut down the discussion. She is not the president, just a very aggressive member, but she gets away with it, I think because she’s so skilled at bullying and also because she does more great work than almost anyone else. She has a child who was in the school a year before my child started, and she has a younger one, so she’s not going anywhere while I’m still part of this school.

I have seen people suppressing tears when she shoots them down, and some stop coming to meetings because of this woman. I’ve tried invoking parliamentary procedure (which we supposedly follow), but she shoots that down too. I’ve tried talking to the officers and other members, but everyone—even though they acknowledge my point—says, oh that’s just her, she’s a character but does so much.

I may be the next to drop out. Any thoughts?

—Need a Louder Voice


Dear Voice,

In my extensive experience, I’d say PTAs are simultaneously among the most valuable and most dysfunctional organizations (along with co-op boards). There is typically a clash of personalities and styles, and a mixture of people who know how to be cooperative members of a group, people who know how to lead, people who aren’t experienced with either but want to help, and people who want to help but can’t get the hang of the process, which collectively can lead to petty competitions, spats, and so forth. Sometimes, leadership falls by default to anyone willing to accept the role, regardless of whether they’re the best qualified. In the case you describe, this woman seems to be wagging the dog, running things despite not officially being in charge.

It appears you are taking appropriate steps but not getting the results you desire. You could continue speaking individually with the officers and members, especially those who have been shut down by this unofficial leader. You could also consult with the school principal if they’re involved (sometimes principals are, other times they maintain an arms-length posture toward the PTA). You could even take the abrasive woman aside, praise her for all her good work, and then tactfully suggest she encourage others to pick up more of the load by allowing them to express what they’d like to do and how they’d do it. But she may not want or be able to control herself, and it seems no one else, including the PTA president, will step in and coax her to step back. I assume no one wants to lose all the positive things she does, so they roll with her abrasiveness.

If none of that works, you could develop some work-arounds: Encourage those who have been put off from the large group to organize independent small teams and take on projects they care about—just run them by the PTA officers or school principal to make sure it’s OK and to avoid duplication or cross-purposes. Or they could go directly to the principal or teachers to identify and fulfill needs.

When I was on my kids’ elementary school PTA, there was a bulldozer personality much like the one you describe. I would try to support those she shouted down (“Please let her finish what she was saying”) just to get ignored myself (I have a soft voice and I don’t excel at verbal retorts).

One issue I was passionate about was that we were paying thousands of dollars to a lice detecting business that came in twice a year, inspected all heads, sent a couple of kids away to get treated before returning to school, and then issued memos congratulating themselves. I found this all very suspect, did a bunch of research, concluded that this program was a waste of our precious dollars, and asked to be on the agenda at the next meeting to share my findings. I provided copies of my data and began by saying we could save all this money by canceling our contract. I was instantly drowned out by the loudmouth screaming, “No, we don’t want lice!” She was joined by a chorus of echoes, and my presentation was over before I could get in another word. So I made my case privately to the principal. His response was that the lice business might indeed be a scam, and the money might indeed be wasted, but if he was the one to end it and then there was a lice outbreak (which regularly occurred regardless of the company’s visits), he would be blamed. So he would rather allow us to squander the funds than be responsible for shutting down the program, however ineffectual.

I gave up. And I stepped off the PTA. But I edited the school newsletter, and worked with individual teachers in classrooms and field trips. The PTA rolled along just fine without me. Years later, despite vowing no more PTAs, I got pressed into service as the high school PTA treasurer. I announced I would do just the books—no bake sales, welcome breakfasts, team dinners, or other projects—and would strictly limit my time and participation in meetings (I’d leave after exactly one hour, although they’d often go on for two). Rather than prolong frustrating debates in meetings, I’d send follow-up emails with my suggestions, focusing on how to make our minimal dollars have maximal impact. To my total surprise, when I “graduated,” I was given the parent leadership award, which I didn’t even know was a thing. Ironically, I didn’t attend the meeting where it was presented, but it’s now in a frame on my wall.

So always bear in mind, your objective is to help the students, not to manage parent personalities or to perfect the functioning of your PTA. Anything you can do to enrich the kids’ experience and the school’s performance gets an A+, no matter how you accomplish it. And the same applies to anything else in life you’re trying to achieve: keep your goal in focus, and don’t get hung up on irritating distractions or obstacles. While you may not be able to win every battle, not every battle matters.