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Back-to-School Night Do’s and Don’ts

Meghan Mathis

Many teachers, myself included, still get butterflies when back-to-school night rolls around. The night seems to be full of potential and excitement. The opportunity to form partnerships with parents, the opportunity to forge parent teacher communication, and to allow them to see the enthusiasm and passion we bring to their child’s education every day makes the evening feel very important.

It can also be very nerve-wracking. What expectations are the parents bringing to our first meeting? What do I need to share with them to make them allies instead of adversaries? Are there things I should definitely do? Are there things I should absolutely not do at this year’s back-to-school night?

DO: Make Sure Your Room (and You) Looks Neat and Professional

Back-to-school night can be exhausting in part because we are expected to be at our best after a full day of work when we’d rather just go home, put on something comfy, and relax. It can be tempting to get things looking “good enough” after a long day rather than going the extra mile to make it look great. The important reason to make your classroom and yourself look professional isn’t for the parents, but for you. The more ready you feel and look, the more comfortable you will be greeting your students’ parents and guardians, cultivating parent teacher communication, and telling them about all of the wonderful things their children will be learning in your room this year.

Wants a Long Conference

Inevitably, you will experience at least one back-to-school night where you end up in a parent teacher communication session that goes on far too long. This is not the night for private conferences, but if you aren’t careful, you’ll end up at school far later than you would have liked engaged in a potentially awkward conversation.

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To avoid this, announce early in your presentation that if any parent has additional questions or would like to talk about their child specifically that they will need to set up a time to have a conference on another evening because there will not be time tonight. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a deal worked out with one of your fellow teachers: At the end of the evening, whichever one of you is not stuck talking with a parent comes to rescue the one who is. “I apologize for interrupting, but the principal needs to see you quickly before everyone leaves for the evening.”

This isn’t about not wanting to listen to parent concerns, of course we want to communicate with parents, but back-to-school night is not the right time for a lengthy private conference.

DO: Be Enthusiastic and Friendly

Be sure to take the opportunity to show the parents you meet how excited you are to be working with their child this school year. Smile. Make eye contact. Express excitement for the learning opportunities you will be sharing with their son or daughter.

Parents want to know that you realize how unique and wonderful their children are, so make sure you express that during this night. Starting your relationship with your students’ parents by assuring them that their children are going to be safe, respected, and engaged in your classroom will go a long way in ensuring you have positive interactions with them for the rest of the year.

DON’T: Sugarcoat Your Expectations

If you have procedures that must be followed in your room that may be different from other classrooms, let parents know that up front. Share with them the knowledge that your class will include hard work and that you will hold their children to high standards.

I work with a teacher who deducts points from any assignment, quiz, test, or project that is turned in without the student’s name, class, and date on it. He has received some angry phone calls from parents who feel that the deduction is too harsh, but he reminds them that the policy was mentioned in the syllabus he sends home to have signed at the start of the school year and at back-to-school night.

At back-to-school night, he explains the policy and why he feels so strongly about it. As proof of why doing this is so important, he states that none of the parents he has ever spoken to who were angry about his policy attended his back-to-school night presentation.

DO: Talk About Potential Disagreements

Chances are high that you will deal with at least one angry or upset parent this school year, so there is nothing wrong with letting parents know how you would like to handle these uncomfortable situations.

Many teachers I know begin with the old joke, “I promise I won’t believe everything your child tells me about what happens at your house if you promise not to believe everything they say happened at school.” They tell this joke to help parents remember that they should call or email when they have a question and not to wait until it becomes a problem. Some teachers may want to avoid talking about disagreements at the start of the year, but being proactive about these matters can save you a lot of needless grief in the future.

DON’T: Let this be the Last Time a Parent Sees/Hears You Happy

It’s hard enough to get time to email or call a parent about an issue or problem involving their child in our jam-packed days, and adding positive communication to that can feel almost impossible. Consider it from a parent’s perspective, however, and you’ll realize that for many of them, this might be the only night of the year they see (or hear) you happy.  The next time you communicate with them might be about a problem, and parent-teacher conferences might be filled with concerns about their student’s behavior or grades.

Imagine if the only time you heard from your principal or supervisor was to tell you when you were doing something wrong and how much that would make you dread interacting with him ort her (many teachers have been unfortunate enough to work in districts like this and know how miserable it can be!). With that in mind, I always encourage teachers to make positive communication with parents a monthly goal. Start small, say 1-3 phone calls a month. You’ll be surprised how good it feels to make a parent’s day with a pleasant call and how quickly you’ll want to increase the number of positive emails and phone calls you send out.

DO: Thank the Parents That Show Up

By the end of back-to-school night I’m usually pretty exhausted. It always seems to fall on the evening of a really long day. But I always try to remember to sincerely thank the parents who do make it out for attending. They had long days too, and no one was requiring them to attend.

We don’t share anything at back-to-school night that a parent can’t find out the information at some other time, so the parents who attend are there because they know it is important to form a relationship with their child’s teachers and hear our views on what we will be teaching their child this year.

Having sat through back-to-school nights where not one parent showed up, I always try to remember to be grateful for every parent who took the time to attend. You should too.

I hope all of your open house nights/back-to-school nights go wonderfully (and smoothly) and leave you excited and optimistic for this school year!