Back to School Night Tips

When school starts up again, the time is nigh for one of the most polarizing events of the year: Back to School Night. Some of us love it and some of us are not as fond of this tradition, but either way, making it a fantastic night to remember for everyone involved is important. Otherwise, if families come to schools and do not see the excitement for themselves, how can they picture their children spending fulfilling days of learning in an environment that seems less than ideal? Ensuring that the evening is worthwhile can be accomplished with just a few helpful wise moves, and by knowing which common pitfalls to avoid. 

Do: Have a Plan

Winging it is almost never a good idea, but it is especially ill-advised on Back to School Night. Even if we know our course content inside and out and can talk about our classroom experience ad nauseum, that doesn’t mean visitors feel the same way. It is helpful to have a structure, even a light one, for a shorter presentation. Whether that involves an activity, some slides, or a student “expert” who shares a perspective with the group, providing a polished demonstration of what the sitting in our classrooms looks like does more than just impress parents; it also gives teachers the opportunity to showcase how exciting learning can be. For example, many teachers engage their audiences in an activator to provide the sensation of being a participant. This engaging approach is usually very much appreciated, and nothing is lost in being more dynamic. As for need-to-know information, not everything has to be covered in such a short timeframe; instead, materials can be passed out for reading independently.

Do Not: Get Mired in the Weeds

Sometimes, I attend Back to School Night as a parent and get frustrated when a teacher shares a lot of tiny details that do not really paint a picture of what the class is really like. For example, one teacher I know always uses her allotted time to go through the class textbook exhaustively to the point that parents leave her presentation each year with an excellent idea of what the book covers, but with no information about anything else. When families visit, they want to know how the teacher works to help students, not hear about every bit of minutiae. It is helpful to provide a written list of class materials and resources, from text selections to needed supplies, but beyond that, focus on what the class is about more holistically.

Do: Gather Information

Having parents in the room provides a rare opportunity to gather information about students. Some of the best questions to ask are:

  1. What is the best way to contact you? If via mobile, please provide a number and indicate whether you prefer a text or a phone call.

  2. As I work with your child this year, what might be helpful to know?

  3. How does your child approach doing assignments or studying for assessments? What skills should I focus on as an area of growth? 

  4. What is your child’s favorite school subject or way to learn?

Instead of putting the answers to these questions in a desk drawer, really going through them and considering how we can use the information to help our classes in the upcoming year is the best way to leverage the expertise of those who know the students best: their families.

Do Not: Overshare 

Parents usually want to know a little bit about the people who are spending each day with their children, but they do not need to hear too much about a teacher’s personal life. This is not the time to talk a lot about our kids, our dogs, or anything of a similar nature. We can share relevant details (perhaps a brief overview of our professional background) and one or two related factoids, such as why we love a certain unit of study or a topic, but that should be about it. The evening is designed for parents to learn about the class. Keeping things focused on the task at hand increases our credibility and effectiveness. 

Do: Show Enthusiasm

Ideally, children spend the day with people who are excited to be teachers. It might be late in the evening after a long day of teaching, but every last iota of energy should go into demonstrating passion for what we do. Having open body language, smiling, and welcoming people into our rooms from the hallway rather than waiting in the classroom are all ways to set the right tone. Visitors might not transmit the same kind of positive vibes back, and that can be difficult. However, we want everyone to know that our classrooms are wonderful places to be, leaving no room for doubt on that subject. 

Do Not: Get Stuck on Rules

Every classroom has rules, but harping on them during Back to School Night comes across as negative or even mildly threatening. It is fine to hand out all kinds of policies and procedures, from information about attendance to how assignments are graded. It is even all right to mention these items briefly and invite questions after the evening has concluded via email or phone. However, dedicating too much time to discussing penalties results in a negative, deficit-thinking vibe that becomes so pervasive that it overrides any of the joy we are trying to communicate. 

Do: Show Appreciation

After working hard all day, teachers are not the only ones who are tired. Parents and guardians (some of whom are also teachers, by the way) who come to Back to School Night are often drained, and they might also have gone to significant lengths to be present by hiring babysitters, taking time off work, or making other difficult arrangements. Pausing to thank them for their time, for the gift of entrusting us with their children, and for their advocacy on behalf of the students we all jointly care about matters deeply. By framing the partnership between parents and teachers for the good of all students as one of collaboration, we reinforce the importance of all adults working together for the benefit of kids.

Back to School Night might be tricky, and it is always tiring. But with the right approach that proactively troubleshoots common mishaps, it can be an evening to remember – for the right reasons. And yes, we will all be tired the next day, so it might be wise to plan something extra nice, like a fancy coffee drink or a walk around the school at lunchtime. Just remember how much it means to families when they can go home and say to their children, “I met your teacher. What a great class!” 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at www.miriamplotinsky.com or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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