A frank guide to a better back-to-school night
As noted in the title, this is intended for teachers who are looking to come through the other side of back-to-school night with fewer scars. If this is your first year, well, good luck. There’s a strong possibility that it’ll be a disaster, but that’s okay. Your entire first year may also be a disaster. Hang in there and feel free to keep reading. This won’t make total sense until you actually do it (like most of your first year of teaching).
For the rest of you, join me as I tear apart why this night is so terrifying and what we can do to make it a little less awful for everyone involved.
To give a little context, I’m a music teacher who loves to perform (redundant, I realize). But wow, back-to-school night is still the scariest thing I do all year. I’ve done it well and I’ve done it poorly. Sometimes both of those things in the same night. You look out into a sea of faces, some smiling, some frowning, most new to you, while you talk non-stop about why you are qualified to be there and about how you are going to do the impossible, all the while fearing that someone will raise their hand. If you’re like me, you are also in constant fear that you are going to get nervous and make a joke that offends, or worst, bombs. Some back-to-school nights I walk out of the building into the dark night and wonder, what just happened in there?
I’m also that special subset of the population that is a both a perfect teacher and a parent of exceptionally exceptional school-aged children. A close scary second to my own back-to-school night, is sitting in my children’s back-to-school night presentations. I have approached this by both crazily smiling my face off in shear support of the teacher sweating it out at the front of the classroom and also by contorting my face using muscles I didn’t know I had upon hearing things like, “I make the tests really hard in the beginning so the students know that they really need to work for this class. Most of your kids will probably fail the first two.” This is also usually followed by a giant eye roll that I cannot help.
Listen. You can’t control whether the parents sitting in your room like you or your philosophy or your outfit. You can’t please everyone, nor can you be everything to everyone. But it’s the same as your classroom. Every one of your students is different in so many ways and some of them are a magical fit to your personality and teaching style and some of them are not. Some of them need you to be creative about how to reach them. And it’s the same for back-to-school night.
So, who’s out there? These are people who are tired, who forgot it was back-to-school night until five minutes before, who hated the subject you teach when they were a student, who couldn’t find your room and showed up late and are now embarrassed, who had a glass of wine before they came (not judging), who heard you were terrible at your job, whose kid said they like/don’t like/love/hate you, but who ultimately love their kid so much they will do anything for them. These are the people staring at you. I will add that the parents who are also teachers in the room are simultaneously cheering you on and critiquing everything you say. Right. So, it’s pretty terrifying.
What to do? Give them what they’re there for in a package that’s satisfying for both of you. Two things need to happen: 1) Figure out what you think they need to know. 2) Figure out what you need them to know.
Organize your thoughts. Use a Powerpoint/index cards/and maybe not your phone. For the love of everything, DON’T READ YOUR SLIDES. Have fewer than 30 words on a slide. Better yet, just title your slide and talk freely (think through what you want to say beforehand).
Put specific information on a hand-out/link they have access to. Know that someone will hold you to what you put in writing. And remember that you should not read them what you’ve handed them. Use your time instead to share what you can’t put on paper.
Here’s what I want to know as a parent:
- Are you nice? Are you funny? Are you sane?
- Will you understand how special my child is and care for them?
- Are you someone who I will encourage my child to connect with as a mentor?
- How are you supporting, evaluating, and giving feedback about my child’s learning and is it reasonable or am I going to be compelled to complain about you to friends/an administrator/you?
- Is what is happening in your class going to make for fun dinner conversation or is your class going to add stress to my peaceful/already tenuous family dynamic?
- What do I actually need to do (fill out any forms, sign stuff, etc.)?
As a teacher, here’s what I want you to know:
- Who I am as an educator and how I am specially qualified to help your child learn
- What your child is going to get out of being in my class
- That I will do everything I can to help your child be successful
- That I am sincerely happy to talk with you, if you have questions or concerns
- What you can do to help your child be successful in my class (just ask them about what we’re learning, show up to support them at after school events, do the best you can at the seemingly impossible job of being a good parent to your increasingly independent child)
- That your child is capable and responsible for what happens in my class. They are the student. You are not. You actually don’t need to do anything aside from what’s recommended in the previous point.
Map these lists out for your own specific context. What do you think your parents need to know? What do you want them to know about your class? Are there questions you always get from parents throughout the year? Answer those ahead of time. Be careful to not present a problem that’s not already there or kvetch about a class dynamic. Reassure them you are competent by appearing or better yet, by actually being competent. Use the short time you have and thank them for coming. Don’t tell them you’re nervous or that you’ve run out of time. Just end when it’s time to end. There’s always more you could say. Let them go. Trust me, they want to go.
Look, the teacher/parent to-know lists are not exactly the same. That’s okay. The teacher and the parent have different roles, but a singular shared person of interest. You both want what’s best for the student. Focusing on that single point and looking from the parent perspective is how to make a better back-to-school night for everyone involved. Good luck!