Back-to-school night basics

Make the most of back-to-school night. It's a valuable opportunity to learn important information about your child's classroom experience.

By Marian Wilde

Along with shopping for school supplies and adopting earlier bedtimes, back-to-school night is an important ritual marking the beginning of the new school year. On this night, your child's teacher explains her goals for the class and for your child. She shares information about her teaching style and methodology, how she grades and the requirements for a good grade. You'll find out what supplies your child will need for the year and what projects are coming up.

Your child's teacher might be a little nervous about meeting all the parents, even if she's done this 20 times before. Arrive with a friendly smile and introduce yourself. If you know each other already, say hello and refresh her memory as to your name and who your child is. She meets lots of parents throughout the year and may not remember your name, although she may recognize your face.

Schools will often start with a general meeting in the auditorium and a brief welcome by the principal. Then parents separate to visit their child's classroom.

Six Steps to a Successful Back-to-School Night

1. Find out if you can bring the kids.

Your school's administration may have a no-children policy for back-to-school night, believing that parents should be free to focus on meeting the teacher and listening to his presentation. However, more and more schools recognize that arranging for childcare, getting the kids home and then returning to school is challenging for parents, and have started to offer childcare at the school for the evening. Be sure to find out what your school's policy is and make the necessary arrangements.

2. Devise a strategy if you need to visit more than one child's classroom.

If you have more than one child at the school, you'll need to strategize. If your older child has already had the teacher that your younger child now has, you might decide that visiting your older child's teacher is the priority for the evening. If both parents are able to attend, you can divide and conquer or take turns in the different classrooms.

3. Bring a pen and paper.

Brenda Lofton, 2006 Louisiana Teacher of the Year and a middle school math and science teacher recommends coming prepared to take notes: "If the teacher says you can contact me and these are my conference hours, you need to write down that information. Also, teachers may give information through a Power Point presentation or maybe something written on the board. So bring something to take notes with."

"I usually go over homework procedures, discipline procedures, the different things that are expected and then give parents time to ask questions," says Lofton.

4. Don't ask specific questions about your child.

Ask any questions that you have about the curriculum, field trips or grades, but refrain from asking questions specific to your child that won't be useful to other parents. It's better to make an appointment for a conference to discuss your concerns one-on-one.

"It happens all the time that someone wants to ask you specifically about their child," says Lofton. "Parents need to know that the teacher would be better prepared to answer their questions and have more time for them if they would set up a conference, instead of trying to do it at 7:30 when it's possible that a teacher might have a young child at home and has been there all day and you may have other parents standing around. So questions are good, but they just need to be ones that address everyone's concerns."

5. Be ready to volunteer.

There will be many opportunities to sign up for volunteer activities, either for school-wide programs or in the classroom. You'll be better prepared if you've already given some thought to your time constraints and how you'd like to contribute to the school community.

Denis Cruz, 2006 California Teacher of the Year, has taught in both elementary and middle school, and has seen many parents quit volunteering when their children reach middle school, often because they're intimidated by the subject matter. "Ask the principal if there's anything you can do to be involved in your child's education," suggests Cruz. "We seem to lose parents by eighth grade, but we still want their participation."

6. Bring a note for the teacher about your child.

If your teacher hasn't already asked for it, now is a good time to give him a letter describing your child's personality, academic history and any areas of concern you may have. He will appreciate receiving the information.

Important information to take away from back-to-school night

1. An overview of your child's school day

Elementary school teachers will share the typical daily and weekly schedule for the class. If you want to volunteer in the classroom, this information is helpful in determining the best time to come. For example, if the teacher asks for parent volunteers to help her work with struggling readers, you need to know when the class is in the classroom reading and not out for music, art, P.E. or lunch.

2. Knowledge of what the classroom looks like

Take a look around the classroom. Is it well-organized? Is it warm and inviting? Is there a lot of clutter? If it's cluttered, is the clutter educational and stimulating to young minds? You can tell quite a bit about the teacher from what you see on the walls and in the bookshelves. You will also have the opportunity to look at the textbooks and any journals, portfolios and artwork the students have created.

3. What it's like to sit in your child's seat

Many teachers ask parents to sit in their child's seat. This gives parents the opportunity to see the classroom from their child's point of view, and it gives teachers the chance to mentally match parents with students.

4. The homework and discipline policies

The homework policy should include information on when homework is due, how it is evaluated and how often, how much is assigned each night and on weekends, and how much it counts towards the final grade.

5. How to contact the teacher

Find out how to contact the teacher and what form of communication she prefers: email, voice mail or notes. Many teachers now use Web sites or weekly classroom newsletters to stay in touch with parents. If the teacher plans to send home a printed newsletter with your child, you'll want to know how often and if you should expect to receive it on a particular day of the week, so you'll know to remind your child.

Jeff Wright, 2006 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and a high school science teacher, urges parents to be proactive when it comes to contacting teachers. "When you look at the fact that high school teachers have around 150 students, it really does help when parents call me," he says. "Just having a parent call and say 'What's his behavior like? What's his grade like? Is he doing better for you?' really helps a teacher."

Questions to ask at back-to-school night

Denis Cruz, 2006 California Teacher of the Year, suggests asking these questions:

  • What is the policy on late work and make-up work? How does it affect the student's grade?
  • How do absences affect the grade?
  • How do I teach my son or daughter to gain independence in middle school?
  • How can I check on my son's or daughter's progress in school? Do you give weekly progress reports?
  • How do I know what the homework is? Is there an online homework calendar?
  • Should I call or email the teacher?
  • Are there field trips?
  • How can I check on detentions or behavior issues?
  • Is there anything you'd like me to do?
  • May I volunteer in the classroom?

Back-to-school night vs. parent orientation night

Many schools hold back-to-school night several weeks to a month after school starts. Other schools have a parent-orientation session, either before school starts or sometime during the first week of school. Advantages of parent orientation nights:

  • Teachers and administrators communicate everything they need to early on, heading off any misunderstandings.
  • Children are more likely to be allowed to attend with their parents. Teachers will use the opportunity to meet the children and give them a preview of the classroom, easing them into the school year a bit.
  • The PTA or the PTO can get parents involved from day one.

Advantages of back-to-school nights in late September:

  • Parents can see student work in the classroom
  • Teachers will be familiar with their students
  • The usual juggling of students that occurs during the first weeks of school, as teachers balance classroom counts, has settled down, and parents know for sure what teacher their child has.

Jeff Wright, a 2006 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, has both parent orientations and back-to-school nights at his high school. "We have an open house at the very beginning of fall," he says. "Later, we have a back-to-school night and every class - freshman, sophomore, junior, senior - will have different sessions on different nights. We do that because a lot of times people just can't make it on one night. It does help in that one night you deliver all the information, give the parents and students time to let that sink in, and then a couple of weeks later they come back and say, OK, here's all the questions we have."