Like many parents at this time of year, I am somewhat dreading “Back to School Night.” It’s not out of any sense of school phobia or flashbacks to my own education. After all, I’ve spent my entire professional life working in schools. I’m even really excited about what my children are telling me each day about what they are learning and the communication from their teachers is off to a great start.

So why this sense of dread?

It has a lot to do with how we plan “Back to School Night” and the feelings that it generates among parents, faculty, and administrators. Dr. Maurice Elias, my undergraduate advisory, professor at Rutgers University and Edutopia blogger sums it up nicely in his post about “Back to School Night”:

Back-to-school night is often unsatisfying. Everyone tries to show and tell the parents what they will be doing for the school year. The schedule is usually rushed, and at the end of the evening, school staff is exhausted and just glad another one of these nights is over. Parents are often left not particularly well informed or better prepared to support the school and their children.

Having been a faculty member, parent, and principal, I can wholeheartedly state that it is a really long night for all involved. Dr. Elias suggests changing the conversation to be about the values the school endorses and how parents and the school can work together to create the climate that we want for our children. If you’ve been tasked with giving the opening comments at “Back to School Night” make this your focus and parents will be leaning forward in their seats.

I would encourage you to go a step further, though. Think about “Back to School Night” like you were planning a lesson that is part of your parent engagement curriculum. How does it move you forward in getting your parents engaged in their children’s learning and in the life of your school? What will the next touch point be? How will you follow up?

Think about your audience as learners. What teaching strategies will you use to convey your content? How will you check for understanding? How will you keep them engaged (remember – many members of your audience have just put in a full day of work)?

Consider using a design thinking approach and delving deeply into the mindset and needs of your audience. What do parents really what to know? Are they interested in the structure of your classroom, your teaching philosophy, or what nights there will be homework? Do they want to get to know the other parents in the grade or school? Do they want understand what the rhythm of the day is or of the year?

All of this needs to be done with the recognition that time during “Back to School Night” is limited. Elementary school teachers might have 30 minutes with their parents while middle and high school teachers may have as few as seven or eight minutes. This means thinking carefully about how to use the time in answering these questions. And making sure to create more opportunities for engaging your parents.

If “Back to School Night” has already happened for your school, it’s time to start gathering observations on how it worked. Talk to your parents about their experience with it. Did it meet their expectations? What were those expectations? Did you meet your learning objectives for the night?

“Back to School Night” should not be about dread or just getting it over with. It’s a night to build excitement, gain your parents trust and support, and engage your community. It should leave everyone filled with energy and positive vibes for the learning to come.

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