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8 Tips for an Effective Back-to-school Night

Educators share their tried-and-true tips to help you make back-to-school night a success.

John Waite, an English teacher at Downers Grove North High School in suburban Chicago, used to get nervous before parents visited his classroom each fall. He only had 11 minutes with each set of parents, and he wasn’t sure what they wanted him to talk about.

So, he sent out a survey.

“I thought, if I want to make this 11 minutes the most meaningful 11 minutes I can, the only way I can have some certainty about that is to ask them what they want to hear,” Waite says.

Using his school’s electronic grade book, Waite sent out a form asking parents to choose from topics like “How Teaching Has Changed,” “Homework,” “The AP Test,” and “Grading Policies.” He still can’t cover everything, but he knows he’s hitting the information parents want most, and the prospect of facing down parents no longer makes him sweat.

Some districts call it “Back-to-School Night.” For others, it’s “Open House” or “Curriculum Night.” Whatever your name for it, here are seven more tips for making the event productive and free of stress.

Show Enthusiasm

Parents can learn your grading policy from a handout, but they can only learn about your passion for teaching from watching and listening to you.

Instead of boasting to parents about how hard he’s planning on making students work, he tells them the story of a girl who—after weeks of saying “I hate this book”—came to love William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.”

Genia Connell, a third-grade teacher in Troy, Michigan, tells parents about a project where kids dress up as newspaper reporters and pretend to interview survivors of the Titanic. “It gets the parents excited, and it gets the kids excited, too,” she says.

Talk About Your Teaching Philosophy

Waite was surprised that “Teaching Philosophy” turned out to be a top pick on the parent surveys. The conversation doesn’t have to be weighty and theoretical. Instead, you can simply tell parents about your approach to getting the best out of your students.

“I tell parents, ‘I’m not here to stress students out,’” Waite says. “I tell them part of my philosophy is that students learn best when they feel safe to make mistakes.”

Get the Essential Forms

You don’t want to spend the whole night on it, but you really do need to make sure parents fill out and turn in a few basic documents, such as emergency contact forms. Joanne Baker, a first-grade teacher in Front Royal, Virginia, gives parents a checklist at the front of their packets and then has her students unpack their supplies. “I tell them, ‘While you’re working on that, I’m going to talk to mom and dad,’ and we go through the paperwork packet.”

If you don’t get those forms that first night, you may spend weeks hounding parents, warns Brian Smith, a kindergarten teacher in North Carolina. “You become the nag, and that’s not the first idea I want parents to have of me,” he says.

Make a Freebie

Especially in the lower grades, Smith says, the “cute factor” can go a long way with parents. That’s one reason he uses Vistaprint to make theme magnets with his phone extension and email address. “I say, ‘Put this on your fridge this year, and then you’ll always know how to get a hold of me.’”

Ask for Volunteer Help...

The beginning of the year is a great time to sign up volunteers. Not everyone will follow through, and some may only show up once. But this may be your best opportunity all year to identify which parents are interested in reading to kids, leveling your classroom library or even helping you cut shapes out of construction paper.

“A lot of times parents aren’t sure if they’re welcome in classrooms,” Baker says. “Right away, I’ll have a sign-up and say, ‘I need your help.’”

Give parents different options. Some may not be comfortable working directly with kids, but would be willing to help you whittle away at your clerical work!

...But Maybe Not Supplies

Smith cautions against having a “wish tree” where parents can select an item to buy for the classroom. Instead, he says, parents should simply put extra items like dry-erase markers on the school supplies list as “optional” items.

“Don’t ask parents for extra stuff at Open House,” Smith says. “They’ve already gone out and bought all the things you’ve asked of them. No one wants to be the only parent that can’t afford to go up and get something from the wish tree.”

Keep Things Simple

Because time is so limited, it can be tempting to rush through pages of important information on Back-to-School Night. But you don’t want to leave parents with a first impression that you’re a fast-talking taskmaster who just stands at the front of the room and lectures.

“Parents don’t come to go through a big thick packet,” says Connell. “They want to know who their child is going to be spending the year with. I try to keep it simple. I tell them my goal is to help their children be the best they can be and do the best they can do—to help them have a fun and successful year.”

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