Back-to-school night is one of those traditions that independent schools might be tempted to underplay. After all, many parents who choose independent education for their children already are very engaged in the life of your school. Yet I would argue that this is one of the most important opportunities you have to communicate essential messages about our goals, philosophy, and vision, both as a school and as individual educators.
While you may get a group of parents who attend nearly every parent meeting, school lecture, or social program, nearly all parents attend back-to-school night. Recognize that this is your chance—and perhaps your only chance—to frame your work in the classroom with kids. Let’s be realistic: You may not have the opportunity to engage with a particular parent or group of parents again until conferences. The impression you make at back-to-school night might be the only source of first-hand information a parent has about your classroom. Now is the time to establish your credibility and expertise. Define your role and build a foundation for potentially more difficult conversations down the road.
What makes for a great back-to-school night presentation? I humbly offer 10 ideas.
1. Build trust. The parents already believe in the school and you. Take the opportunity to build upon that with a professional presentation of your goals. Although most schools talk about a “partnership” with parents, I am not a fan of that metaphor. I am always careful to frame the parent-school relationship as one where a healthy school needs an active and engaged parent body. A partnership implies equality in the relationship and ignores certain realities and expectations of the parent-school relationship. (For example, we are not “partners” in how we neither grade or assess; nor are we are partners when we decide on disciplinary consequences.) Both parties play critical, but?different?roles in the development of a child. I view the relationship as more of an alliance, one that requires trust, communication, and cooperation.
2. Be organized. Remember that during some back-to-school nights, you might only have 10 minutes per class to speak to parents. A presentation that keeps parents late can be frustrating or distressing. A bad presentation is one that tries to do too much or includes information that is not relevant. Practice your presentation, time it, and refine it.
3. Deliver essential information. Parents really don’t want to hear about your child, your family pet, or your summer adventures. It’s tempting to include personal information to humanize yourself, however, the parents who are there really want to hear about your work with students. Essential information to cover with them includes:?course goals and content; your teaching philosophy and educational vision; your grading policies and how you provide students with constructive feedback; communication policies—how parents can reach you, what expectations they should have for communication, and how they can empower their children; and your expectations regarding homework and workload.
4. Articulate your support for every student. As a teacher, my main goal is for all parents to leave understanding that I care deeply about their individual child’s progress and experience in my class. I want my students to learn and grow from the challenges they will face. I let parents know what I will expect of students and how they can help. I also want them to know that my door is always open for questions or concerns. State the specific ways you want your students to grow and what you are doing in your class to achieve those goals.
5. Know your audience. Most of the parents who attend back-to-school night have just left work and are giving up their evening to spend time at your school, most often sitting in small desks. Independent school parents are smart, motivated, and capable people who value education, and despite how some get a bad reputation for helicopter parenting, the vast majority of them simply want to be good parents. They show up because they want to learn something from you that they can only learn in person. Consider how you might deliver a message in person that would stand apart from something you share in an email.
6. Use tools wisely. Sometimes a handout can help cover tedious material that takes time to talk about. Including your contact information and other essential information can help assure parents of transparency and fairness.
7. Be careful with humor. Sometimes a little humor is great way to break the ice and get a conversation going, but it also can backfire. This is particularly true of sarcasm and any comments or jokes that could be construed as “anti-kid.”
8. Define key takeaways. With limited time, there are going to be messages that you’ll have to save for another day. It can be tempting to deliver to all the parents a message that you know one or two families need to hear. Narrow your presentation to three key takeaways; be positive and save those messages that perhaps just a few individuals need to hear for one-on-one conferences or conversations.
9. Don’t be (too) modest. One of the most essential pieces of information to convey is your background and expertise. Be proud of your experience, as it is undoubtedly impressive. You have dealt with all kinds of issues and all kinds of learners. Don’t hold back; include a brief description of your professional career and why you teach. If done with humility, it builds confidence.
10. Be positive and enjoy yourself. Despite the inevitable ups and downs in the life of a school, schools are hopeful and exciting places to be. Your classroom should exhibit joy. Conveying the higher purpose of what you do is important, but so is reassuring parents that your goal is to create a positive and exciting learning environment in which all children can thrive.
Without fail, back-to-school night is an event that reinforces the decision that a family makes to send their child to your independent school, and we know those decisions often come with a great deal of sacrifice. The most common reaction from parents on this night is one of immense respect for what you do and a wish that they, too, could be experiencing what their children do as students in school today.
Mike Davis, Ph.D., is head of school at Colorado Academy.