PTA Dads

My name is David and I am a PTA Dad.

I joined our school district’s PTA Board three years ago when my oldest child entered first grade because I wanted to be involved in her educational experience, and I was curious as to how I could help make a difference. In the first meeting I attended, I noticed one very obvious fact.

I was the only male in the room.

While it felt a bit awkward at first, the more involved I got, the more rewarding my experience became. I soon learned that my participation was not so unusual anymore. Male involvement in PTAs across the country has been growing as more and more men come to see that their participation benefits themselves, as well as their children, the school system and the community.

Dads Getting Involved

“I went along with my wife to our first PTA meeting when our oldest child entered school, but didn’t do much of anything for about two years,” recalls Mike Meehan, a long-time PTA member from Long Island and the current Male Initiative Specialist for the New York State PTA. “Then I [started to understand that] we had a lot of issues in our school district, so I started to attend more meetings, I became more vocal, and I started getting involved through the PTA.”

The desire to directly enhance their child’s experience is a recurring theme for PTA dads, and is the most common reason given for why they chose to initially get involved. “My youngest son is going into pre-K, and he will not have access to a lot of opportunities,” says Anthony Bailey, a parent from Yonkers who joined the PTA at the start of the 2011-2012 school year. “As for my other two children, a lot of their extra-curricular activities have been cut [because of fewer] resources within their school. I decided to find out why it is occurring and also what can be done in order to get [funding] restored and what can I actually do so that their whole school experience is enriching.”

Soon, however, all PTA parents participate for the same reason. “The more I got involved the more I realized that it’s not just about my kid,” says Lonnie Phillips, a PTA dad from Pelham and the Leadership Development Coordinator for NYS PTA. “It’s about all the other kids who don’t have somebody there to represent them.”

The Impact of a New Family Structure

More and more men joining the PTA reflects generational shift away from more traditional gender roles in the family and workplace. Thirty years ago men were working from 9 to 5 while women were more likely to be home with the kids, which allowed them the time and proximity to dedicate to the PTA. Today, there is no norm. Men are at home with their children or working jobs that offer more flexibility, while more and more women are in careers that demand more of their time outside the home and the town in which they live.

With this new reality, it is natural that the PTA would cease to be the all-girls club it once was. However, even with more men having the time and opportunity to get involved, male PTA members are still in the minority. Part of the reason for this is cultural; men still don’t understand the purpose or value of a PTA because traditionally they have not been involved. “I find that the traditional view of the PTA is that they don’t do anything,” says Bailey. “People think they’re just about fundraisers and bake sales. So from a male perspective, they don’t want to be involved in that.”

Slowly but surely that perception is changing as the effectiveness and influence of the PTA has grown. And as men have become more aware of the potential power of the PTA, they have begun joining in greater numbers. Meehan observes, “I think National’s push to change the nature of the PTA and make it a more inclusive organization has helped [to attract men].” As part of that push, National PTA created PTA MORE (Men Organized to Raise Engagement) and formed alliances with a number of father-oriented organizations across the country to “serve as a conduit for greater father and significant male involvement, resulting in positive outcomes and successful relationships for children, parents, schools and communities. “There will even be a Male Engagement seminar held this year at the organization’s national conference,” he says.

Recruiting Men

Recruiting men into the PTA is a far different task than recruiting women, mainly because men generally aren’t reaching out to their local PTA chapters. This doesn’t mean they don’t want to be a part of their child’s education, it just means they don’t know how to take that first step. “First, you’ve got to recognize that all men want their children to be successful,” says Phillips. “Most men don’t know how to be involved in the schools. So it’s really going out and reaching out to them one-on-one and inspiring the other members of the PTA to reach out to men and let them know their voice is needed, their influence is needed and then giving them specific ways to offer their support.”

Specificity is key, as men tend to be more comfortable working on a specific task. Phillips formed a Dad’s Club within his local PTA as a way to get more men involved. “It’s a committee within the PTA,” he says. “We set up our own agenda with a bunch of things we want to accomplish.” For now, Phillips’ Dad’s Club concentrates on three things: running a collection drive to send boxes of shoes to Haiti, bringing in guest speakers to all grades in the district, and holding an end of the year “Dad’s BBQ” event in the spring.

Another draw to the PTA is a desire to influence educational policy not just locally, but statewide or even nationally –something the PTA has a long and successful history of doing and which resonates with men. “Whether you’re advocating for something in the schools or you just want the leaf blowers turned off around school during school hours because children have allergies, when you’re doing that as an individual or a small group you don’t have the influence that the PTA has,” says Phillips. “The beauty of being involved with PTA is PTA is already established and is the largest child advocacy organization in the country.” The Westchester region of the NYS PTA alone boasts more than 50,000 members.

Lasting Benefits

Perhaps the biggest unrealized benefit for men to become more involved in the schools is the measurable impact their involvement has on their children. “There are definitely improvements in a child’s life when a male figure is involved,” says Meehan. “Definitely grade levels increase. Behavior problems decrease. It could be an uncle, it could be a grandfather, it could be mom’s boyfriend. A lot of children don’t have an active father in their lives but there are other males that can be and are involved in their lives. So the male image definitely contributes to the education of a child, most definitely. A child’s self-esteem improves.”

A U.S. Department of Education study found that children were 43 percent more likely to receive primarily “A” grades if their fathers were highly involved in their schools, and they were 55 percent more likely to enjoy school as well. Also, students whose fathers did not live with them at home were 39 percent less likely to repeat a grade and 50 percent less likely to experience serious disciplinary problems if their fathers participated in even one activity at school. “Children just simply do better when they know that their dad cares about their homework or cares about how they do in school and it’s not just about sports,” explains Phillips.

Personally, I don’t need the statistics to know that my children benefit from me being as involved as I am with their schools. I see it when I show up to run a book club, or pass them in the hallway on my way to a meeting. They see me taking an active role in their schools and know that I’m working for them. “My children understand what I’m doing and how it will have a long-term effect,” says Bailey. “So for them, they understand that OK, my dad is actually doing something about it rather than just sitting back [like uninvolved dads].”

There may always be more women than men in the PTA, but men are slowly beginning to understand that they have a real opportunity, as well as the responsibility, to be a part of the conversation regarding the education of their children. “Dads are waking up to the fact that our presence in the education area greatly benefits our children,” says Meehan.

David Neilsen is a frequent contributor to Westchester Family and an active PTA dad.