Teacher upset PTA is charging families for back-to-school trip

Q: I teach in a Title I school. Historically, the PTA has been sensitive to this, but in the last few years, it seems to have been co-opted by a group of more middle-class parents who seem to be on the tone-deaf side. They mean well, but they have no appreciation that even a small fee can deter some families from participating in events. They recently organized a “Back to School” celebration for teachers, students, and their families that involves visiting a pricey science museum in New York City. In the past, any events organized by the PTA have been free. This time, it has offered to sponsor teachers, but there’s no money for families who can’t swing the cost. Even if there was, I bet many wouldn’t come forward to say they needed the help. It’s not like a school trip, where families could discretely approach the school business manager. Besides, I doubt our school would even attempt to do an expensive trip like this with the whole school. I personally believe that any events planned for the entire school community should be free, but obviously others disagree with me. I’m afraid this is going to divide our community and undo a lot of the work we’ve done (over a period of YEARS) to create an inclusive community. I’m curious whether you agree with me, and if so, what you’d do. 

A: There’s no question that charging for the museum trip changes the school culture. That’s why so many back -to-school events are potlucks or popsicle parties held on school playgrounds or blacktops. The goal should be to build community, not erode it. Events like these should be inclusive by design, and this particular one is going to leave out a large percentage of students. It’s thoughtless and insensitive. In other words, I agree with you. 

However, to change this situation, you’re going to need to deal with a couple different constituencies, and you may not be the most effective spokesperson. The planners will be more likely to listen to your principal, who probably already has a relationship with the PTA president. I’d start there in the hopes that your principal agrees and is willing to strategize with you. The principal also may have some useful background information about the personalities involved. Ideally, the principal pushes back, suggests alternate plans, and explains how things have been done historically. It’s possible the PTA even has a policy addressing this specific issue. If there isn’t one, then perhaps the principal also could collaborate with the PTA to create one. The PTA and school should be on the same page and share the same philosophy on these types of matters.  

If your principal asks you to take the lead, then I’d start by emailing the PTA president. In that first communication, ask for clarity on the museum trip and share your concern that it’s exclusionary. If applicable, you also could tell the president that some of your students’ families have been expressing concern as well. Ask to meet in person or to at least talk on the phone. If you still get nowhere, you could appeal to your district-wide PTA or the Board of Education. If your principal doesn’t think it’s a problem worth addressing, you’ll have to decide how far you want to take this issue. You also could consider talking to people off the record.”

Whether or not you get traction, keep in mind that no one can make you go. It can be powerful to protest with your feet and simply stay home. If other teachers make the same choice, the PTA will be more likely to come up with a different plan next time. It’s not going to be much of a celebration if half the stakeholders opt out.  

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PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog.

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