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Back-to-School Night: The Ultimate Conversation Starter for a Successful School Year

Darri Stephens

Senior Director, Education Content, Common Sense Education
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For teachers, fall, not January, marks the New Year. It's the time to kick off a new beginning, make new resolutions, and set new expectations. And there is no better time to relay these hopes and dreams (OK, plans) than at Back-to-School Night.

As a former classroom teacher, I always relished this first touch point of communication with parents -- the chance to outline expectations, procedures, and goals for my students, hoping that if I were upfront and clear from the get-go, there'd be fewer surprises come time for parent-teacher conferences. It was also my opportunity for listening to and fielding questions early in the year to quell any misconceptions and ease any anxieties. (Kids aren't the only ones anxious about going back to school!)

Over the years, I relied on three tried-and-true tenets for a successful Back-to-School Night, yet I’ve refined them due to the ripple that technology has thrown into the "typical" school year.

1. Be Transparent

In this era of global classrooms, connected education, and home-to-school connections, educators and parents need clear lines of communication now more than ever. You don't need me to underscore how technology is throwing a curve ball for teaching and learning -- it's a sport that most parents don't fully understand because they didn't grow up in that arena. A crucial part of achieving the objectives for 21st century learning skills (PDF) is to keep all stakeholders in the know about the changing landscape and the ever-evolving tech space. Back-to-School Night allows you to set that tone for the next 180 or so days.

Have a Common Language

Education is filled with buzzwords! A Digital Glossary levels the playing field by helping everyone speak (or at least understand) all of the nuanced jargon. It can help parents understand the subtle differences between individualized learning and personalized learning. They'll appreciate the intent of your methodology more if they understand what exactly you mean by flipped learning. And they can try to stay up to date, like we all try to do, on the latest and greatest social media apps.

Explain Your Thinking

Outline which websites and apps you plan to use in your teaching. How does this tech enhance (not just supplant) your instruction? How is your students’ privacy protected? Let your parents know how you will use these tools and programs to differentiate and adapt your instruction to your students' varied learning styles. Explain how these tools can provide vital insight into individual students' strengths and weaknesses. Consider curating your own version of a Top Picks list of apps and sites that parents can use at home to support their kids' in-class learning.

2. Be Direct

When we send students home with devices like tablets or laptops, we can be seen as encroaching on parents' turf. Many parents tell us at Common Sense that they feel bamboozled, not because they're against any specific educational technology, but because they haven't been prepared to think about their family's expectations and procedures (a.k.a., rules and consequences!) around that technology's use.

Invite in Parents

Invite parents to be part of the digital shift in your school’s culture. They can be your best advocates. They know their kids the best, so recognize them as the experts by encouraging school-based conversations about raising responsible and respectful digital citizens. Oh, it does take a whole village! Check the turnkey Connecting Families modules that can be used throughout a school year.

Set Expectations

You probably have clear expectations in mind for how you want your students to harness the power of technology -- while minding the pitfalls. But your expectations might not be the same as your families’. Back-to-School Night is a great time for you to get a better understanding of your families’ feelings and attitudes about technology in general. Check out the surveys, quizzes, and media logs in our Family Toolbox, which can help you gain insight to how your students and their families use technology at home. Then urge parents to jumpstart the conversation about expectations at home using a Family Media Agreement (PDF) or Customizable Device Contract (PDF). We know that school and home expectations around technology probably won't align perfectly, but kids are adaptable, and they can subscribe to different guidelines as long as the expectations are clearly outlined from the get-go.

3. Be Consistent

Starting at back-to-school night, make it a goal to help parents feel comfortable and familiar with what's going on inside your four walls, especially as it relates to technology.

Stay True

Make sure that all your stakeholders, parents and kids alike, understand your classroom’s and your school’s expectations. Be ready to decode your school's or district's Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) or Responsible Use Policies (RUPs). These documents are often loaded with legal terminology, for which you might need to be the translator. What friendly reminders can you emphasize on a classroom poster or via a letter home to parents? Be consistent on how you remind and enforce the outlined expectations throughout the year.

Keep 'Em in the Loop

Consider how you will let families know what has been happening on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Will you email newsletters or maybe create a class website? What protocols will you set about sharing photos, etc.? Keep your classroom families up-to-date on the opportunities and challenges that kids face in today's 24/7, always-on, digital world. Find relevant advice in our Topic Centers – or just simply embed our Blog Widgets into your class' site.

Talking with parents about current topics related to technology allows us educators to overcome the obstacles and embrace the opportunities that technology affords our students. The research shows us that when teachers, students, and parents communicate effectively, learning improves (PDF). So how will you enable a clear channel of teacher-family communication throughout the year? Please tell us about it in the comments below, and here's wishing you a successful Back-to-School Night -- and a great new school year, too!

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

These are great suggestions, Darri. It's been so interesting to see how my role has shifted as I've brought more and more technology into my classroom. I'm an English teacher, so I explain that English is about communication. That used to mean reading books and writing papers, but now it includes reading websites, writing blog posts, etc. I think it's important to help parents understand why homework and classrooms don't (and shouldn't) look the same as they did when they were kids.

I would add to your list: be happy! I have heard many parents say, "Wow - I can tell you really love your job!" I make a point of clearly communicating to them how happy I am to be working with their kids, how much I love my school and town, and what a thrill it is to be teaching during such an exciting time. We could easily find just as many negatives to complain about, but how would that help build relationships and establish good communication? I hope in the few minutes I see them at Back to School Night that they will feel comfortable contacting me throughout the year because they sense that I care about their student's success as much as they do.

Also, I ask parents to email me so I can easily add their address to my contact list. Then I make sure I reply to every email so they can see that I view all of my 160 students as individuals. Throughout the year I send mass emails to parents, updating them on what's going on, and I don't want them to feel that I view them as one generic entity. Those early individual emails help soften the impersonal feel of those mass messages.

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Great share! As a parent, I am big on teachers not simply reading to me their curriculum. I can read that at home. The average parent does not have many face to face opps with their child's teacher - so I feel those moments should be capitalized on, and used to build/strengthen relationships and share information and ideas that one cannot find on the school's website. Sharing resources/places for parents to turn to for help in understanding the world of education today, supporting their child, and ways to encourage wonder and learning outside of the classroom or textbook is priceless.

With technology, I think is easier for many to accept when it is simply integrated into the learning. So have the focus be on the learning and not the tool. Or sharing how the tool can help magnify the learning.

At our school, we use a variety of tools to help families and the school stay connected when we can't be face to face (not all are 2-way). Things like a weekly e-newsletter, Twitter, Facebook, School Messenger and our website are school wide; and then you have teachers who use Remind, ClassDojo, Edmodo, student blogs and email. With all of these options, what I appreciate most, is that all of our teachers and principals are easily accessible.

Darri Stephens's picture
Darri Stephens
Senior Director, Education Content, Common Sense Education

Fully agree, Gwen! Besides the chaotic first day of school, Back-to-School Nights often are that first opportunity to truly connect with one another, parents<-->teachers. Most parents need to be primed on how technology is enhancing and redefining their kids' learning experiences, and not just have tech for tech's sake. Their classroom experiences didn't work in this way, so it can be hard for them to relate. Teachers can help quell the questions by being clear and transparent about the purpose of using technology in the classroom. Giving concrete examples of lesson activities or project-based learning initiatives helps as well (and consistently sharing samples of students' final works too!) And as you point out, technology can also ease and enhance constant communication between teachers and parents by offering more efficient and easily accessible ways to "view" what's going on within the four walls of a classroom. It can be an overwhelming learning curve for all involved, but the success stories are plentiful!

Darri Stephens's picture
Darri Stephens
Senior Director, Education Content, Common Sense Education

I'm sure your enthusiasm is contagious, Laura. It's true -- you and the parents should be equal stakeholders in ensuring a student's success in learning and sometimes that take a bit of cheerleading. I've always believed that my #1 job in the classroom was to instill a love of learning; with that love of learning would come intrinsic successes for a student, in and out of the classroom. Just as every student is unique, so is each parent. I'm sure your personalized approach makes such a difference to parents. And I think technology these days can help ease that workload, by being able to respond seamlessly, 24/7 (for better or for worse) to individuals or to whole groups. For too long, classrooms have been defined by their four walls and have been subject to shut doors. Yet now, with students and with parents, questions can be asked after school hours, stellar projects can be shared beyond bulletin boards, and conversations and connections can continue to grow and build throughout the year. Good luck in your New Year!

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