As a new teacher, Back-to-School Night terrified me. I worried that I wouldn't remember names -- the parents' names or the kids' names. I worried that I wouldn't sound like I knew what I was doing. I worried about my cultural competence -- would I appropriately address parents whose backgrounds differed from my own? I worried that I wouldn't make a good impression. I needed to remember to smile a lot, to offer positive observations about their children, and to appear calm and in control.
While there's only so much you can control about what happens during Back-to-School Night, I want to offer some suggestions for what you can control. There's much that you can do in preparation to give parents what they want.
From the Perspective of a Parent
It's been 20 years since my first Back-to-School Night as a teacher, and I now stand in a different place in respect to this event because I am a parent. I want to share what I'm most interested in and concerned about when I walk into my son's classroom that evening -- and it's not exactly what I anticipated parents would be concerned with when I was a new teacher.
Here's what I want to know from the teacher: Do you care about my kid? Do you know anything about him? Does he have a place in your classroom?
Far more important to me than how many years you've been teaching, the standards that you'll cover, or the classroom rules is whether you care about my kid. To some extent, that's all I'm actually interested in, because I don't think you'll be effective if you don't care about him.
If you are interested in getting to know my child, it's a good sign that you care. I will listen for evidence of knowledge and caring in our communication. When we talk (even if it's just for a couple of minutes), do you say anything reflecting that you know who he is? What he likes and is interested in? And what he can do? I'll listen also for the questions that you ask me -- they don't have to be profound, just curious.
Here's what this would sound like coming from a teacher about my kid:
Teachers can, of course, prepare for Back-to-School Night by figuring out what can be shared and asked about students. I acknowledge that this may not be possible if you teach secondary and have dozens or hundreds of students. But it is if you have a reasonable number.
I'll look on the walls, cubbies, and desks for indicators that you're inviting him to bring his individuality into the room. Perhaps I see a board with "Where I'm From" essays or first name acrostic poems. Maybe there's work displayed that was done by groups of students, something indicating that learning will be collaborative at times.
I might see photos of the class during the first few weeks of school, photos of my kid engaged in community building. His desk might reflect that it's his space. Maybe he's decorated it or taped on visual tools that help him learn. Maybe there are classroom jobs and I can see that he's got a role that I know he'll shine in -- the classroom time monitor or materials organizer. Hopefully there are some classroom agreements that kids have generated and signed, and I can see my own child's scrawl on the poster.
Focus on What You Can Control
What I, as a parent, am looking for is that my child has a space metaphorically (and literally), that he belongs in this classroom. This is an indicator that you're building a learning community in your classroom. I want to know that my son will belong to a community. I want to know that adults care about him, that his peers will come to know him beyond what they see on the outside, that the complexities of who he is as an individual, unique being will be appreciated.
Back-to-School Night can be unpredictable. You never really know what's going to happen. But you can control what the classroom looks like. You can set it up, you can prepare, and you can let the walls communicate your hopes, vision, and commitment to your students.