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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 08/31/2009

New Rules for Back- to-School Night

By Valerie Strauss

This really happened:

An administrator at a school in Montgomery County welcomed several hundred parents at back-to-school night by relating his extensive experience as an educator and as a soldier.

Then he said, “So you can see I am very qualified. So, do I know more than you do about the curriculum? Yes I do. Do I know more about [student] placement? Yes I do. Do I want your opinion? No I don’t.”

The crowd was effectively cowed.

This, admittedly, is not the best way to start off a back- to-school night--but it points to two problems that too often ruin the evening when parents and teachers get together at the start of the near year. The two problems: the parents and the teachers.

Let’s review the usual routine:

The principal welcomes the parents and takes too long recounting what he or she did over the summer. Parents are then sent off to hop from classroom to classroom to meet their child’s teachers but warned not to ask specific questions about their child on this night.

Each teacher makes a short presentation--often zooming through important information about homework, grading policy, discipline and other key topics--and then takes questions from parents. The most aggressive get right down to business, asking specific questions about their child:

“Why is my daughter in such a low math class?”
“What are you going to do to accommodate my child’s allergies this year?”
“How many and which AP classes can my son take and also be on the baseball and lacrosse and debate teams?”

The teacher, not wanting to slap down a parent so early in the school year, says there isn’t time to take personal questions but then proceeds to try to answer it anyway. The discussion goes off on a tangent. Parents check their watches to see if they are going to miss the premiere of the television show they thought they’d be home in time to see.

A second kind of annoying parent is then sometimes heard. I know this because, I confess, I have been this parent. This is the one who asks somewhat belligerent questions as if they know more than the teacher.

When my daughter’s 8th grade teacher said that the class would read “Catcher in the Rye” and I, indignant that a book I thought better suited for high schoolers was being introduced so young, asked something obnoxious, such as “Why do we have to push these kids to read things they aren’t ready for? That book is usually taught in 11th grade.” To which the teacher said the only thing she could: “Because we think it is appropriate.”

“Catcher,” by the way, has been my daughter’s favorite book since she read it in 8th grade. But I digress.

Throughout every back-to-school night, there is always some parent who is too important to shut off their cell phone, which invariably rings and disturbs everyone else.
Then, too soon, the end-of-class bell blares, the parents go to the next class, and the whole thing starts all over again.

Now for the new rules:

Each teacher should have key information about their class written out on paper that is given out to parents: Overview of the curriculum. Homework: How much kids should do; if and how much the parents should get involved and when. Discipline expectations. Contact information.

And when a parent asks something they shouldn’t, tell them nicely you won’t answer it and be done with it.

Certainly it takes a strong personality to face some of the parents, especially in areas (like the greater Washington D.C. region) where many parents are more highly educated than their kids’ teachers. But keep a stiff backbone anyway.

Parents, even if you have many more degrees than the teacher, assume they know more than you do that night about the the class they are going to teach. Don’t ask personal or smug questions.

And, please, shut off your cellphones!

(I’ll shut off mine.)

By Valerie Strauss  | August 31, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Parents, Teachers  | Tags:  back to school night, parent, teachers  
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The best presentation that I ever saw at BTSN was by a teacher who told the parents about himself. He stood up and said "You can all read about the curriculum, so you don't need me to talk about it. I want to tell you about myself." He then went on to tell us about his qualifications, his teaching and professional background, his outside interests, and his expectations for students.

Posted by: postisarag | August 31, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

I found myself getting a little miffed when reading the degree reference in this article.

Speaking as a teacher, I think part of the conflict between parents and teachers in the DC area has a lot to do with the nature of school. Certain types of parents assume that going through school makes you an expert on how to teach school. But in seeing parents lead volunteer reading groups on special days and watching how quickly those groups evolve into chaos (and this is with 5 children, not 30), it is hard to believe that simply going through school makes you an expert on best teaching practices or grading policies.

Level of education aside, I think one of the biggest challenges of teaching in this area is establishing a tone of respect that is still maintained when a child is struggling with his/her studies.

And even though my welcome packet notes my level of education (2 masters degrees: one in education, and one in English), I still get at least one parent a year who references his/her degree credentials before arguing about a grade.

Posted by: kmh3h | August 31, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I can't imagine what kind of parent would send her child to a school where the administration is as rude as the one described. I guess it takes all kinds.

Posted by: bethesda3 | August 31, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Agree with Bethesda. The guy is a first-class jerk which he may have added in his list of experience. Unless he knows more about the children he's in charge of than the parents or teachers in class with them then he would be hearing my opinions.

The one thing I'm most interested in from the teacher at BTSN is how she plans to challenge my child, not the class, my child after she gets to know her.

Posted by: flabbergast | August 31, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

“Why do we have to push these kids to read things they aren’t ready for? That book is usually taught in 11th grade.”

Yikes! Reminds me of my third wife.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | September 1, 2009 7:53 AM | Report abuse

As a society, we have high expectations and have established exceptionally high standards for teachers. We expect these professionals to be accountable for everything they do. They are over-evaluated, brow-beaten, micro-managed and held accountable for their students' achievements or lack thereof, no matter what other influences impact a child's performance (poverty, bad parenting, abuse, etc.). No other profession in this country must endure such scrutiny. Yet, the same people who are so critical and demanding of teacher performance are the first ones to complain about teacher pay raises. Until this country truly respects the role of our educators, including paying them what they are truly worth, we will continue to lag behind other developed nations. Thank God for all those teachers who remain committed--out of their love of teaching--regardless of how much money they will earn.

Posted by: pwkickice | September 1, 2009 9:19 AM | Report abuse

More degrees or not. I think teaching experience adds more to the equation.

Posted by: llerehs | September 1, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

So many people--parents, elected officials and the general public--- believe they are experts on education just because they went to school--for varying lengths of time, usually many years ago. Get over yourselves. You are probably NOT an expert in education. Work much harder at being an expert on your own kids, then your conversations with the teachers--who ARE experts in education-- may be far more beneficial to your kids. Isn't THAT what it all about ?

Posted by: jmsbh | September 1, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I had a lot more respect for teachers before taking classes with them.

This summer, some of the personal enrichment coursework I took counted towards whatever teachers need to take to remain current here.

My goodness, they were AWFUL classmates. Unprepared, disrespectful, late, cliquish, and disruptive. It was as if they were role playing the academic year in a short summer course. After these experiences, I have a hard time taking teachers seriously.

Posted by: JustGoAway | September 1, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

One comment on the "I know better' opinion of the administrator - if he personally decided all the student placements, then I see his point. But, if like in most institutions, he trusted his curriculum coordinators and grade chairs, then I would emphatically disagree with him. I would politely ask him to review the placement and ensure the faculty he delegated to make these placements made the correct assessment.

Posted by: jimcardillo | September 1, 2009 7:59 PM | Report abuse

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