Let me tell you about one of my first Back-to-School Nights as a parent.
My daughter and I excitedly walked to her classroom. She couldn’t wait to show me around. But blocking the door was a long line of parents that snaked out of the classroom.
“Do we have to wait in this line, Mommy?”
“Well, I guess so.”
So we waited.
Finally we stepped through the door and saw why everyone was waiting. There was a sign-up sheet for parents to write their contact information: cell phone, email, home address and child's name.
The teacher was talking to the parents of another student and I could see many more moms and dads milling around, waiting their turn. So my daughter grabbed my hand and took me to see her desk.
“Here’s where I sit, Mommy. See my name?”
“Yes, sweetie. Nice! And I see Daniel sits next to you. And what’s this?”
“That’s a picture I drew. It’s me on the bus.”
“Oh, I see that! You have a big smile on your face. Show me around your classroom.”
“Well, you can see we do stuff all over.”
And with a little prompting my daughter walked me around the classroom. Everything was tidy and put away. I could see something was happening at different classroom “stations,” but my daughter couldn’t really explain them. It was early in the year, so there wasn’t much student work around.
I looked at a few other pictures that students had drawn. I looked at the posters and behavior charts on the wall.
After about 15 minutes, the teacher was talking to another mother. They were laughing and seemed to know each other and I could see from the amount of parents in the room, obviously waiting to talk to the teacher, we would be waiting for a while.
Finally, 40 minutes after we began our back-to-school adventure, my daughter had to go to the bathroom, so we left.
Here’s what I wanted to feel as I walked out the door of the classroom:
My child is going to really like what she learns in this classroom.
I can picture my child in this classroom and I’m excited to send her here.
The teacher is real person who will be personally interested in my child.
I can trust this teacher to do a good job and I have some ideas of how I can reinforce the learning at home.
How do you think I felt when I walked out the door of that classroom?
I offer this anecdote not to be overly critical of the teacher. Obviously the format of a “meet and greet” Back-to-School Night can be difficult to manage. But no matter what kind of Back-to-School night your school hosts, keep the following DO’s in mind.
DO think through logistics
Let’s use the anecdote above as an example. You’ve probably already identified some of the logistics that the school and the teacher failed to think all the way through. Like:
The school already had my contact information. So why was I filling it out again?
Could the teacher have sent a form beforehand so I could have done it at home?
If I had to do it, could there be a few sign-up sheets around the room so there wasn’t a bottleneck at the door?
What are the parents supposed to do as we wait to talk to the teacher? How will e know?
If the goal is to meet the parents, how can the teacher make sure she gets around to all parents?
What are the goals of Back-to-School night? Why was Back-to-School Night a meet and greet? Is this really the best way to achieve the goals of Back-to-School Night?
No matter what the format of your Back-to-School Night, you have to sit and think through the logistics. And perhaps the most important logistical consideration should be how to gather parent feedback on the format and effectiveness of the Back-to-School Night. With that feedback you’ll be able to fine-tune the process so that all parties involved are happy with the results and more importantly, parents will keep coming back.
DO think about what parents really want to know
When parents come into a school, they want to feel the positive and infectious energy of teaching and learning and they want to meet the people they are trusting to educate their children.
So focus your energy on really showing parents that, in your classroom or school, kids learn and do. Student work, visuals, materials, videos, simulations, modeling — there are many ways to help classroom learning come alive for parents.
And don’t underestimate the importance of establishing a personal connection. Parents care about your credentials for sure, but they also care about your ability to connect with and be personally invested in their child. So break the ice. Show that you are a person as well as an educator, and you know that relationships are the foundation of effective learning.
You should also show that you understand the important role that parents play in educating their children. Most parents are eager to be partners and want to help their kids learn. But they aren’t sure the best way to go about it. Share one or two specific, doable strategies and elicit ideas from the parents. Show you value this partnership.
Remember Back-to-School Night is your first (and maybe last) personal contact with the parents of your students. Don’t waste this precious opportunity reading the student handbook!
DO communicate information in a variety of ways.
Think of a Back-to-School Night as a mini-classroom experience. No doubt you work very hard to reach the students in your room in multiple ways. So use this same practice with the parents.
Ask yourself two questions:
What information do I want the parent to walk away with?
What is the best way to communicate this information?
Let’s say you want parents to walk away with the understanding that their child is going to be learning and doing in your classroom. Prepare something for them to see or touch. For example, if there are centers in the classroom, stage them with some student materials. Help the parents picture what happens there. Perhaps print out a little sign that gives a more thorough explanation of the learning that happens at each station (in parent-friendly language) and, if you expect the students to be the tour guide (like my daughter in the anecdote above), include a few prompting questions.
If students are older, display the books and other materials that students will work with throughout the year. If you have student work from past years, display it anonymously or create a slideshow of projects and class activities.
If you want parents to understand your grading policy, a handout for them to read on their own will probably work fine. Or send it home ahead of time and invite them to ask questions.
If you want parents to reinforce some skills at home, model one or two strategies they can use.
Even if your Back-to-School Night is more of a teacher presentation, you can have visuals or a slideshow going in the background. Just as you do in your classroom, think how to help parents get the information by seeing, hearing and doing individually and as a whole group.
Want to talk through some of your ideas? Let's do it.
Start here: Talk with a colleague about how you can use these three "Do's" to make your Back-to-School better.
Challenge yourself: Add a slideshow or more engaging visuals to your Back-to-School night.
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