The first day back at school is a big deal for the kids, but for the parents, back-to-school night is the most important date on the calendar. As an opportunity to connect with teachers, it’s unmissable if you want to start the new term feeling confident and organized. (Especially if you have more than one kid — and their schedule — to manage.)
If you’re feeling all the nerves about back-to-school night, the first thing you should know is that you’re definitely not the only one. Jennifer Holt has been on both sides of the desk: as the nervous mama wanting her son’s teacher to love him like she does, and as the anxious teacher wanting to make a good first impression on all of the parents.
“Teachers may seem to have it all together, but they’re just as excited and anxious to meet you and your child as you are to meet them,” said Holt, who is the founder of Happy Teacher Mama.
Next, make sure you have realistic expectations about back-to-school night. It’s an opportunity to put names to faces, and will undoubtedly help you get organized, but it’s not a time for in-depth discussions about your child and their personalized learning needs. “The evening is typically not set up in a way that makes that possible,” explained Charissa West, high school teacher and parenting blogger. “Because there is such limited time, and the one teacher is typically meeting 30 or more parents at once (and for middle and high school, that may be quickly followed by several more sets of 30), it’s best to use that time productively.”
West recommends sticking to general questions about the school syllabus, parent volunteering opportunities, field trips, in-school performances and class parties. But if you have questions about your child’s situation or a classroom policy as it relates to your child, save them for email or individual conferences.
“Remember that back-to-school night is just one snapshot of a classroom,” said West. “There are many other ways and opportunities to touch base with your child’s teacher throughout the year, as needed. Don’t feel pressured to squeeze it all in on one evening in the first few weeks of school.”
For former teacher and parent educational consultant Courtney Hillesheim, two questions are key on back-to-school night.
- What is the grading policy in your classroom?
“Knowing what areas the teacher puts emphasis on will help parents with children who get easily frustrated, concentrate their efforts on where they will yield the most results,” explained Hillesheim. “For example, in my English class, homework was only worth 10 percent of a student’s grade. Tests and projects made up 40 percent while classwork was 30 percent, participation made up 10 percent and attendance was another 10 percent.”
- How can I get my hands on extra copies of textbooks or workbooks you will be using?
“Let’s be honest, our children forget their homework at school and then we find ourselves in a panic trying to reach a classmate’s parent for a picture of what they were supposed to do,” said Hillesheim. “A lot of times, teachers follow the flow of a workbook and your child can recognize their classwork problems on the page of the book. Keep up with homework by having your own textbook stash!”
Of course, there are also things parents shouldn’t do on back-to-school night.
- Don’t ask a question the teacher just answered
“Listen to the teacher (and even take notes) when she is discussing the grading system, homework and discipline policies,” said Holt. “If you are unclear on expectations, ask for clarification. Teachers are always happy to explain things in more depth or in a different way so that everyone understands.”
- Don’t speak for your child the whole time
Holt recommends introducing yourself, but give your child the chance to speak to their teacher too. If they are very young or extremely shy, Holt suggests encouraging them to tell the teacher about their favorite toy, game or friend. “Help them prepare to meet the teacher before back-to-school night by talking about how nice they are or how much fun this year is going to be.”
- Don’t tell the teacher how much “luck” she is going to need to teach your child
“Kids are very perceptive and they need to know that their parents believe in them,” said Holt. “The last thing they need to hear you say to their new teacher is what a difficult child they are. That will only discourage the child — and the teacher.”
- Don’t expect the teacher to spend an hour speaking only to you and your child
“As teachers, we genuinely want to develop a wonderful relationship with every student and parent,” said Holt. “But there’s only one teacher and up to 30 students in a class. Be courteous of the other families that want to speak with the teacher. Only take a few minutes of their time so that everyone has an opportunity to meet the teacher individually.”
“If your child is in the older grades, make sure you tour the school with them,” said Emily Morrison, a teacher of 18 years. “Do a run-through of their schedule. Talk to their coaches, administrators, and other faculty members, not just their teachers. It takes a village to raise a child, and it’s nice for you to meet the village.”
Finally, don’t forget to say thank you. “Be thankful for the people who are doing such hard work on behalf of your child, and let them know you appreciate it,” said Morrison. “Believe me, they’ll reach out to you sooner because of it. It’s always easier to talk to people you feel appreciated by.”
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