So I was really in the deep end. I decided to chuck myself in it, with only PTAsocial as a paddle.

Diving into the deep end

I offered a couple of months ago, on the spur of the moment, to organise a PTA Cake Sale at school. Now if you’re a regular PTA-er you’ll be thinking, “Big Hairy Deal.” But wait… I am not a seasoned PTA-Mum and I can’t even bake. (Well nothing edible anyway.) I’m also quite new around here, so don’t have a regular gang of ever-reliable helpers to call upon.

So what possessed me to organise it? Well, I wanted to put my money where my mouth is. I wanted to show everyone how even I could arrange a cake sale, with zero prior volunteering experience, no back-up posse, and hardly any opportunity for mingling in the school corridors. I was going to use the PTAsocial app, to see if I could recruit all the helpers I needed, from the comfort of my sofa.

It was also only recently that we started using PTAsocial across the whole school. And when I say recent, I mean the official announcement hadn’t even been made. No sweat, I thought. We’ll get the school office to send out an email the week before, introducing the app and slowly building our volunteering community. As it turned out, various crossed wires and red tape later… the email only went out the day before the cake sale, as did the usual bookbag flyers (we’re hoping to phase these out and save some trees!). Gulp. I was worried it would all be too late. What a disaster…!

Read the rest of this entry »

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Today was a hugely exciting day for the PTAsocial Team — we had our first fair stall, at the St Albans Family Fair, and even managed to get 2 mins of fame on local radio! It’s been incredibly hectic but mostly fun getting ready: designing posters and flyers, organising balloons and spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. (It has had it’s moments though – especially this morning when our printer broke an hour before the fair! Just typical…)

So this truly was a family affair, with my ever-supportive (read long-suffering) husband and three kids all in PTAsocial-branded garb, offering passers-by PTAsocial flyers, balloons and cupcakes. Chris (Chief Tech Guy) and Maria (Marketing Pundit) also joined us from London to meet the Great British Public.

Tes & hubby

Maria & my hubby

Our quirky banners (thanks to our Designer Dude, Mark) drew a bit of attention and I was chuffed to bits to get some wonderful feedback from parents who tried out the app (this will be great news for our developer Liam, who has worked long hours dotting ‘i’s and crossing ‘t’s!).

We’ve recently been reaching out to local PTAs, and running workshops in St Albans and Harpenden to take people through the app step-by-step. Of course, not everyone is completely comfortable with technology, and our presence at the fair was a chance for people to see up close how it’s designed to be simple and easy to use.

Everyone seemed delighted with what they saw. They used words like “absolutely brilliant” and “this will make such a difference!” It was really satisfying to see the penny drop as they realised how it’s such a time-saver, both convenient and inclusive. After all, even the worst shirkers (and I should know) like to feel good about helping in some small way.

Need food contributions to be brought in, or cakes to be baked? Need people with CRB checks for a school trip, or first-aiders? Want a parent with a background in IT to come and teach CodeClub once a week? Need an easy way to fill your summer fair rota?

Not a problem. Just publish, send and watch the volunteers roll in. Really!

I’m looking forward to running more workshops and getting to know the Hertfordshire school community personally. Next stop, London baby!

PS Just so we’re clear, I do think you’re great, but I’ll let David Mitchell explain what Great British Public really means 😉

PPS Thanks to Shanice for the yummy cupcakes!

 Cupcakes

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I went to a real PTA social yesterday. It was just coffee, cakes and conversation, oh and a few (not too noisy) toys thrown in to keep the toddlers occupied. They needn’t have bothered with those – the cakes did the job! 
 
It was a refreshing change from the usual PTA events where there’s always a money-making angle. Not even a hint of a suggested donation here. It was all about the social this time. The PTA were apparently responding to feedback from parents who were feeling slightly aggrieved to be constantly asked to put their hands in their pockets. The PTA did exactly the right thing in response. They decided to put on coffee mornings, just getting people together, no hidden agenda, just coffee and cake and shelter from the (frankly ridonculous) March snowstorms.
 
It was a welcome chance for us reception parents (okay, so it was just mums!) to mix and mingle, especially with those in other classes. We’re three-form entry and I see a lot of their faces every day, passing them in the corridor, each of us being tugged along in opposite directions by a five year old eager to get to the park or play-date after school. This time we had the opportunity to stop, introduce ourselves and actually chat. We discovered startling coincidences and parallels, discussed common issues and swapped tips, even made some business connections – I never miss an opportunity to network! 😉
 
We all came away feeling in a lighter mood, more familiar with each other, a bit more connected to the school, a touch fonder of the PTA, having made some new friends we can now call out to in the corridor tomorrow… and though I hate to admit it, slightly wider at the hips (dang, those fudge brownies were good!) 
 
Thank you PTA, nice one!
 
When’s the last time you put on an event purely for the fun of getting together, getting to know one another a bit better, and fostering a bit of community spirit, score some (ahem) brownie points? We think you’ll find that this pays dividends in the end! 

Whoosh! Where did January go? Sorry for neglecting the blog folks – it’s been crazily busy taking the PTAsocial volunteering app up a further notch — more news very soon!

My busy schedule was made busier as, rather inconveniently, all my kids’ birthdays are clumped together in the winter months. Now aged 11, 8 and 5, they’re more than a handful, let me tell ya. When you get to number 3 it’s almost tempting to gloss over the birthday with a ‘special day out’. But UH-UH — she clocked that one straight away  saying “No way José!”’ and demanded equal rights for her first ‘school birthday party’.  So… 30-kids-screaming-in-a-party-hall later, and after being relieved of a silly amount of money, we have survived another year… just! Bet you know that feeling.

Now that the Christmas parties and fairs are fully done and dusted, we’re hearing from quite a few PTAs changing over to new committee members, who are looking around for fresh ideas and ways to engage their community. One of the questions they are asking is “What do parents really want from the PTA this year?”  That’s an important consideration, and there are all manner of fun social gatherings, the usual cake sales, and then some rather more unusual events, Murder Mysteries and the like…

But what if you turn this question on its head and ask your parents “What can you do for the PTA? What valuable skills could you be sharing to help our school children blossom?”

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Think well beyond parent reading assistants and consider a whole array of enriching experiences parents can share with kids in the school community.  Sharing by volunteering.  Things that spring to mind are after-school or lunchtime gardening clubs; art and craft activities; drama club ; programming (I do CodeClub once a week, teaching Year 6 how to programme with Scratch and they LOVE it!).

Today’s the day to ask your parent community if they have an interesting hobby they could come in and talk about, or even better actively share with the children? We all have a whole host of useful stuff to bring to the table, offering insights into our daily lives, opening up a world of possibilities and firing the children’s imagination.

Have you ever made this suggestion? If so, have you made it easy for the parents to volunteer? Just because the school PTA door is always open, it doesn’t mean that everyone will be comfortable walking right in. Make a point this time of asking for specifics, aim to be more direct with what you want from your parents and take away the barriers. That way, if they resonate with particular ideas they’re more likely to feel compelled to step forward.

What new ideas have you recently introduced to your PTA? Do you make the most of the skills your parents and carers have to offer? Why not add your views and comments here? I’d love you to share your thoughts and stories with us and other PTAs reading the blog.

FINALLY! The last day of school term was today.   Never mind my 3 kids – even I was on my knees begging for school to end.  My 10 year old son burst in this morning demanding for chocolate for breakfast.  I opened one eye wearily for him to explain.

“Not only is it the last day of school, but …

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according to the Mayans,  it’s also the end of the world today. So please can we have chocolate for breakfast. It’s the least you can do!”

The closest I allowed myself to give the kids was a bowl of chocolately cereal.  They remained unimpressed, however I did manage to squeeze an extra hug out of them at school drop-off, “Just in case the world does end!”

Looking back over the last term, it’s been quite a rollercoaster ride since launching the PTAsocial app to help school PTAs, Friends and Home School Associations run more efficiently.  It’s come a long way since the initial idea popped into my head last year when I excitedly discussed it with friends and scribbled down designs on napkins over coffee and pastries.

I’m so delighted to now have a strong product that really does make life so much easier for PTA event organisers. What’s more, it has also been welcomed by less involved school parents, like those who work or have limited time to help.  They were really chuffed to be able to see exactly what’s going on in school and to be able to help in ways that suited their lifestyle. The app is the first of its kind here to be interactive and accessible, and I’m actually pretty proud of what we’ve achieved so far.  The app is very simple to use but it’s so effective in getting a little help from a lot of people!

I’m really excited about working with our pioneering customers and the new PTA signups that are joining us daily, eager to use cutting edge technology to solve an old problem.  As more and more schools realise the benefits of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, they also soon come to realise its limitations.  We’re targeting our product to meet your PTA needs exactly. When you are ready to take things to the next level and make your  PTA social, our team will be waiting for you with open arms!  Try us out for FREE.

If you are still recovering from organising your school Christmas Fair — enjoy your well-deserved break from school.  I expect, like most busy people, you are even busier over Christmas!  However a change is a good as a rest, and all that.  Merry Christmas, wishing you much joy in 2013!

We now find ourselves in mid December and PTA, PTFA and Friends committees everywhere are heaving a collective sigh of relief and satisfaction as they pack up their tinsel and count the takings from their recent school Christmas fairs.

For many it’s been a joyous and busy time, coming up with fun ideas, enjoyable games and getting together with other parents to decorate posters, stall signs and prepare Christmassy delights like mulled wine and mince pies.

For my part, I jointly organized our reception class stall with my co-class rep.  Luckily she’s a pretty creative sort and thought of some lovely ideas for our kids to decorate cut-out cardboard lollies and reindeer collages for our Lucky Lolly Pick and Name the Reindeer stalls.  I somehow managed to squeeze in an hour last Wednesday to go and help the kids prepare the decorations for Saturday’s fair.  However my 4 year old daughter decided at that moment to unceremoniously reveal that she had caught a sickness bug and promptly threw up as she was preparing her lolly.  Not the sort of decoration I had intended!

So — that scuppered my plans to recruit help in the final days before the fair.  Luckily, I had already set up the event on my PTAsocial app, which meant I didn’t have to actually be there to ‘work’ the queue to drum up support.

I simply sent out an email request like the one below, and several people immediately started to sign up.

PTAsocial email invitation example

I was careful to set rota times to no more than 20 minutes and suggested that we were looking for a whole-class effort, offering to look after each other’s children or bring them along to help on the stall.  Those who were able to help for longer could simply select 2 slots if they wanted.

When they clicked on the email link and registered, they were presented with a rota like the one below.  It allowed them to pick and choose how and when they helped, by flicking a toggle to volunteer.

PTAsocial volunteer rota

I was really over the moon with the response from the other parents, with comments like:

It was so easy, I never would have believed it was going to be that easy… I’m useless with technical stuff!

I used your app — it’s wicked!

It’s absolutely brilliant… really straight forward!

I could not commit to anything till the day of the fair. (I have four kids!) It was really useful to check the rota easily at the last minute and be able offer help!

Although I also put up a paper rota on the class door, only one person chose that method, and one other preferred to phone me. The remainder chose to volunteer at their leisure via the app, leaving me more free time for Christmas shopping! 😉 I was pleased to have a response from around 20 of the 30 kids’ parents. Not bad without having to do the dreaded rounds with the clipboard!

Everything went really smoothly on the day, and as an organiser, I had hardly any work to do! Many parents seemed to enjoy the fact that they had played a part in raising funds for the school this year. It can often be the preserve of the few enthusiastic regular supporters who are available (e.g. due to support from extended family) and happy to cover a stall for three hours!

An additional bonus was that *everyone*, including myself, had family time to explore the rest of the fair without being tied to the stalls for the duration. Because of the frequent changeover on the stall it was also a hive of activity and a sociable spot for a chat, and a chance to get to know the other parents. All in all, we had a fantastic day! Now, onto the next event… Christmas drinks of course – purely social. Well, we do need volunteers to glug some wine or down a pint. I’ve got a feeling there’ll be no shortage this time either!

What about you — how did your fair go? Were you involved in organizing events or recruiting and managing volunteers? Was it fun or a hassle? Did you have many stepping up to help? Did they spent the whole fair on the stall? An hour? Do you think more would help of it was a shorter spell or if they could sign up last minute? Tell us what you did and what worked (or didn’t) for you.

We’re now more than half way through November and your school PTA Christmas fair is probably only days or weeks away. This is likely to be one of the most important items in your school fundraising calendar, and it’s a popular event that families look forward to. There are dozens of stalls to source stock for, set up and manage on the day, food to organise and serve, Santas and elves to recruit, presents to wrap… the list goes on!

How is your PTA managing all of this? Many PTAs I have spoken to use a spreadsheet to manage the stalls and tasks, followed up with paper and email appeals for help. Several PTA meetings are held to dish out the tasks and use those vital Class Reps to reach out to the parent community and use all the charm and persuasion they can manage to drum up some support. This can be time-consuming and slightly uncomfortable if people start to slope away when they see you approaching with a clipboard… The most enthusiastic volunteers seem willing to spend up to 3 hours helping, but unfortunately this is only off-putting to the rest of us mere mortals! (I literally sunk down in my chair when I heard somebody pipe up with this offer at our PTA fair planning meeting the other night!)

Mince Pies For Santa

If you read my last post about reasons why some people don’t volunteer, you’ll realise that I’ve given a lot of thought to what would motivate somebody to volunteer their time or skills for their PTA. Here are my suggestions to get more parents helping out this year:

1. Make a complete list of all the stalls, and offer everyone the chance to offer their help. Don’t just re-use last year’s list of stall organisers — they’ll be stuck doing it for years!

2. Instead, ask them to write down in detail the steps they took to run their stalls. This may seem tedious but it will help to share the knowledge and make it easier for a new volunteer to step in. It’s their get-out clause! If you don’t have an escape plan, nobody else is going to want to join the flock.

3. Keep a detailed record of answers to key questions such as:-
• Who were your stock suppliers?
• How much stock did you order?
• What did you pay for it?
• What did you sell it for?
• What sold well, and what was left over?

4. Also keep track of raffle donations, sponsorships, advertising in the fair programme by:-
• Parents and carers,
• Local businesses, and
• Parents’ employers
Keep a note of whether they seemed keen to help again next year or would like a break. It’s best if on electronic copy rather than paper file. File pages go missing. An electronic record is easier to share, modify and re-use.

5. List each and every task or rota slot that needs a helper on the day and make this available to the wider school community, not just the core group of helpers. Again, this is important for several reasons:
• It gives everybody visibility of exactly what is involved and demystifies it,
• It gives new faces a chance to volunteer, confident that they understand the tasks, and
• It promotes the good work that the regular helpers do — hardly anyone really appreciates the extent of the preparation involved.

6. Make time slots only half an hour rather than an hour. This may take more coordination, but an hour is quite a long time to leave your other half or a friend looking after young kids. If you are running a really easy stall you could even make it 15 min slots, hardly a blip on a fairgoer’s visit – reducing the barrier to volunteering drastically. Those that are happy to offer help for longer can simply sign up for several slots!

7. Allow everyone to see who else is helping on the stall. This means that friends can sign up together in the same rota slot, and be sure to pass the time happily working together.

8.  Make sure the stall organisers have contact details handy for all the volunteers. They can fire off a quick email or text to gee them up and make sure they are up to speed and on time.

9.  Keep an open channel to gather feedback, suggestions and of course update the notes with an event ‘post-mortem’, recording each potential improvement for next year.

10. Don’t forget to thank everyone afterwords, and have cause to celebrate pulling off a wonderful community event though united efforts. Share facts and figures and ideally lots of photos with the entire community, subject to adequate privacy measures being in place.

Remember, the more people who take part in organising and volunteering, the greater the sense of ownership, pride and pleasure in making a difference to our kids. Make it social, you won’t regret it!

Over to you: how successful have you been in recruiting volunteers for your fair this year? Is it an easy task or do you struggle to get people to step forward? Have you tried reducing your volunteer slot durations? Do you have any tips to share based on your experiences as a volunteer recruiter or fair organiser? Pray tell!

Well, half term went by in a flash, didn’t it?  Now it’s a countdown to PTA Christmas Fairs across the globe… PTA committees everywhere are girding their loins, preparing to round up the troops to make Christmas decorations, donate raffle and tombola prizes, man fair stalls, sell raffle tickets and cook up a storm! It’s an incredibly busy time. Lots of fun, but a lot of effort goes into making it so enjoyable.

A few lucky schools have very active parent participation. Sadly though, many PTA chairs say to me that they can’t understand why more people don’t volunteer, that they have very opportunity to get involved. They say,

We tell people to email us if they want to help, or return the paper slips we provide if they want to get involved.

However, they rarely hear back from people, or they don’t turn up to PTA meetings.

Inevitably the few that do get more than their fair share of work to organise the usual events. These enthusiastic participants tend to just get on with it, mostly cheerily, but occasionally a little resentment or frustration creeps in. In the worst cases, I hear of committed helpers who reach breaking point and completely withdraw from helping, fed up after a few years of feeling like they do everything while others just turn up as guests at events, have a great time and leave. It can sometimes be a tiring and thankless task. Does this strike a chord with you?

Lady in Christmas Hat looking worried

“Why won’t more people help?!” they exclaim, “It’s not so bad, and would be so much lighter work if more parents mucked in.”

Of course it would. So… Let me enlighten you, as (until recently) I was one of those shirkers that the PTA enthusiasts among you cannot comprehend.

Read the rest of this entry »

I love meeting new people, which is lucky, since I’ve just moved away from my London home of 14 years to leafy Hertfordshire!  I’m always striking up conversations in the park, in the playground, wherever. Of course it helps when you have young kids starting at a new school. Prior to that I was home-schooling for a few months as a result of the relocation, and I did struggle a bit at times. Perhaps people could sense my desperation to speak to another adult human!

So now my kids have got into school, I’ve really thrown myself into the PTA lark, and have been along to a couple of meetings. Having spent the last few years at countless business networking events, I’m fairly unfazed by entering a room full of people I’ve never met before – though the difference now of course is that I’ll see these people on a daily or weekly basis.

Initially I had gingerly volunteered as class rep, but I’m now going for it full pelt with the social engagements, getting together a list of email addresses and sorting out a coffee morning and (tonight!) a Girls’ Night In at my place to break the ice. It’s a bonus that we’re a Reception year — that’s probably what gave me the guts to be class rep: I’m not the only new person in the crowd.

There’s an interesting group of mums, with a range of personalities, experiences, career or life ambitions, skills and attitudes. It’s a fairly mixed bunch too, kind of a mini version of the wider community. I’m looking forward to getting to know them.

Let’s face it though: not everybody wants to make friends with other school parents —  they may feel they have enough friends already, find nothing in common with them or just be shy. However from my point of view, it’s in our interests to get to know our fellow parents for several reasons. The fact is that a lot of us no longer live close to our families, and therefore don’t have a support network to fall back on.  Instead we rely on each other to share lifts to a party or do an emergency school pick-up if we’re stuck in traffic.  It’s about being part of a community with common goals, and just making things a little easier for each other. In this day and age, friends are the new family!

Another reason is that before long the children start coming home delighted with the new friends they are making, and wanting to invite them over or go to their friends’ houses. Now I don’t know about you, but I personally would be reluctant to send my kids over to some random person’s house.  So getting to know the other parents is important to me, and gives me the reassurance I need in order to support my kids as they embark on their own journey exploring friendships.

One thing that PTAs often do well is community. Whether it’s a Quiz night, pamper evening, or parents’ disco (my personal fave!), the PTA are instrumental in bringing together the school community under one roof and giving us a chance to mingle and raise money for the collective benefit of our kids.

Sure, most of us are capable of making friends anywhere, anytime and don’t need the PTA for that. But I must admit it is a darn sight easier given the right time, place, atmosphere and opportunity to mingle. Right, I’m off to chill some wine for my soiree with my new friends – thank you PTA!

What about you? Did the PTA make it easier for you to socialize with other parents at your child’s school? Do you find it useful knowing them? For your social life, your child’s or just for support? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

We all know that the PTA is a great source of support and help for our schools. Busy organising events to raise funds, they work their socks off to get money together to improve school support and help fund outings and equipment.  However, it’s only when you get up close and personal that you realise the real benefits of the PTA “hands on”.  This all came home to me “big style” only recently. 

At the start of term, my 10-year-old son enjoyed a seriously special event.  In fact, it was nothing short of a life changing experience.  Zachary and his schoolmates had the chance to attend the Paralympics on a school trip.  What an amazing experience!

Zachary is so into sport has ambitions to be a sports journalist (amongst other things!).   What made this trip even more meaningful was that he has a physical disability: hemiplegic cerebral palsy caused by a stroke around the time of his birth.  So seeing the triumphant British Paralympians, and watching his peers cheer them on, was fantastic for his self-esteem.  He was completely buzzing from the atmosphere of inclusion and acceptance he experienced.  I think we’ve all noticed a marked change in the way people with disabilities are perceived since the Paralympics, a shift in awareness. Long may it continue to improve.

From a mum’s point of view, I’m chuffed to bits that the school is capturing the spirit of events like these and encouraging all the kids to get involved in a really wide range of sporting activities.  I have just now heard that the school is now planning to spend PTA funds on a long jump sandpit so the kids can relive some of the excitement of the Games!  The kids are over the moon at this news and are already limbering up in anticipation.

As a parent, I definitely want my kids to benefit from all these special and exciting opportunities. Having said that, I keep coming back to this difficulty that we parents don’t always have the time to roll up our sleeves and get involved with the PTA to actually raise the cash to pay for these things. 

It’s a simple fact that we all live busy lives, often controlled by “To Do” lists that only ever seem to get longer and longer. So how could volunteering be made easier?  What would make you turn up to get involved with your PTA?  Would better communication help?  What about using technology, would that do it for you?  Are you fed up with scrambling round finding slips of paper to return to the office? 

Please let me know your thoughts…as you can see, I’m firmly on this one now that I’ve got started…!