“What can I possibly learn in seven minutes?”
This was a text message that I received from a friend after he and his wife attended their son’s first middle school back-to-school night. My friend continued, “I’d walk into a classroom, sometimes not even sure what class it was. The teacher would give a quick ‘hello’ and jump straight into the syllabus. And just when the teacher was wrapping up the scripted portion of the presentation, the bell would ring. I’d hustle out of the classroom and scurry down the hallway to find where I was supposed to be next. The bell would ring, and the whole thing would start over. I found it all disorienting. My wife just found it uninspiring.”
As school administrators, we aim for parents to leave school events feeling connected, confident, hopeful, informed, and reassured. I doubt that any of us would want parents to leave a school gathering feeling disoriented and uninspired.
Regrettably, such feelings are more common than we’d like to admit. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Reimagining School Events for Parents and Educators Alike
School events, ranging from back-to-school night to open house to parent-teacher conferences, serve as universal and fixed features of the academic calendar. In our increasingly digital age, these events are vital, as they offer a unique opportunity for face-to-face interactions between parents, teachers, and school administrators.
A study from the Center for American Progress reveals a significant preference for face-to-face communication among both educators and parents. It found that 85 percent of educators and 89 percent of parents view in-person conversations as effective, compared with 60 percent and 69 percent, respectively, for technology-enabled communications. Further, research from the Department for Children, Schools, and Families highlights that a notable 92 percent of parents aspire to be actively involved in their child’s school life.
Although parents would prefer to be involved via face-to-face meetings with their child’s teachers, that’s not always possible given their busy schedules. As a result, a majority of their involvement takes place via email. This is why school events that welcome parents into the building are so important: They are that rare time when teachers’ preferences and parents’ intentions intersect.
So, how can you begin to rethink school events to lay the groundwork for a strong, symbiotic home-school partnership? It starts with asking the right questions.
How does your event spotlight teacher collaboration and provide parents choice?
In middle school at Francis Parker School of Louisville, we recently devised a new schedule for back-to-school night comprising three 20-minute sessions. Each teacher created presentations for two of the three sessions, and we asked them to create at least one of their sessions collaboratively.
Teachers chose their topics and presentation partners, working by department, by grade level, or in cross-disciplinary groups. Topics ranged from “QSA: Support and Community Connection” to “Mathematical Discoveries: Walking in the Shoes of a Middle School Math Student” and more.
For each session, parents had eight distinct teacher presentations to choose from. A week before back-to-school night, I sent an email to parents with the menu of session options. That way, they could peruse possibilities in advance without needing to commit through preregistration.
Although the specific themes and forms of collaboration will vary in different schools and for different types of events, teachers and administrators can apply the underlying principles of spotlighting collaboration and providing choice universally. This approach, successful for our back-to-school night, can be thoughtfully adapted and applied to enhance and enrich open houses, parent-teacher conferences, or alumni events to foster a more interactive, engaging, and personalized experience—foregrounding and ultimately strengthening the school community.
How does your event build parent community?
For many parents, schools serve as primary hubs for community and social interaction. Recognizing their role is pivotal in rethinking the purposes of, and possibilities for, school events.
When we planned our back-to-school night, we applied this knowledge to create a reception for new families, followed by a reception for all families to mix, mingle, and chat. We also included passing time between sessions so that parents could continue conversations, intermixing spontaneous dialogue and authentic interactions before heading off to their next session.
The purpose of this carefully structured schedule was to nurture and stimulate the organic growth of relationships. Schools are more than just institutions of learning; they’re dynamic ecosystems where bonds are forged—not just among students, but also among parents and guardians.
By fostering an environment where conversations can flourish, we are truly embracing the school’s role as a nexus of community-building. From parent-teacher conferences to school fairs and performances, each event offers unique opportunities for interaction and connection. Incorporating informal mixers before or after structured activities, or allowing for breaks in between sessions, can provide parents with the time and space to engage with one another, promoting a sense of participation and belonging.
How does a strong parent community benefit your school?
We’ve all heard it before: “It takes a village to raise a child.” This saying especially rings true when we consider schools as central hubs for community interaction and connection.
How often have we seen students bring conflicts from outside into the school, looking for solutions from us instead of resolving issues among themselves? When parents connect, it’s a win for everyone. Having adults speak directly means we can get down to the real issues, rather than trying to piece things together through children. Nurturing these teacher-parent connections opens up a world of benefits, creating harmonious communication and a vibrant, supportive school environment.
In this way, each event, from casual gatherings to formal conferences, becomes an opportunity for building relationships, embodying the true spirit of a school as a village.