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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 08/31/2010

Surviving back-to-school night

By Valerie Strauss

Here's an updated version of the first piece I published on The Answer Sheet exactly a year ago today. This first anniversary finds me on vacation, but I'll keep posting new pieces each day until I return to full-time blogging next week.

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 back- to-school night, but it points to two problems that can mar the evening when parents and teachers meet at the start of the new 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 and ask questions, but only general ones and none that are specific to their child.

Each teacher makes a short presentation--sometimes zooming through, or never addressing, 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, doing exactly what they've been asked not to do.

“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 tries to answer it anyway.

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

When my daughter’s 8th grade teacher said that the class would read “Catcher in the Rye,” I, indignant that a book I thought better suited for high schoolers was being introduced so young, asked, “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 eldest daughter’s favorite book since she read it in 8th grade. But I digress.

Back in the classrooms, some 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. Some keep up with their correspondence on their Blackberries. Others, the ones who don't shut off their cell phones, fumble around looking for it when it rings or buzzes or hums and disturbs everyone else.

Here’s what might work better:

Each teacher should have key information for parents on paper:
*Overview of the curriculum.
*Testing schedule
*Homework: How much kids should do; if and how much the parents should get involved and when.
*If and when the teacher is available to help a child out of class.
*The disciplinary regime.
*Contact information.

When a parent asks something specific to their child, teachers shouldn’t answer. Certainly it can take a strong personality to face some parents, especially in areas (such as the greater Washington D.C. region) where many parents are more highly educated than their kids’ teachers. But if teachers can stare down a classroom full of kids, they should be able to handle the parents.

As for the parents, here's something to consider: Even if you have a boatload of fancy degrees, still assume the teacher knows more than you do about the the class he or she is going to teach. If the teacher proves you wrong later in the year, you can be annoying then.

Don’t ask personal or smug questions.

Stop staring at your Blackberry.

Don’t play with your iPhone.

Quit whispering to your friends.

And shut off your cellphones! (I said last year I would, but I didn’t. This time I’ll leave it at home so I won’t be tempted.)


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By Valerie Strauss  | August 31, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Parents, Teachers  | Tags:  back to school night  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The surprising thing teachers want from parents -- Willingham
Next: Why paying parents to attend school events is wrong


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 and ask questions, but only general ones and none that are specific to their child.
In reality is there any point in these yearly rituals?

Parents night at school used to make sense for the elementary schools. It came in late October and parents simply visited the class room of the teacher of their child. The teacher spoke to each parent individually about their child.

Since this was elementary school, teachers at the most simply had to meet with a limited number of parents with one on one discussions.

No need for presentation since the parents were only interested in hearing from the teacher regarding their child.

The parents had the chance to meet the teacher of their child and the teacher had the chance to meet the parent of the children they taught.

It is interesting how simple ideas are over time turned into meaningless rituals.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 31, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

When a parent asks something specific to their child, teachers shouldn’t answer. Certainly it can take a strong personality to face some parents, especially in areas (such as the greater Washington D.C. region) where many parents are more highly educated than their kids’ teachers. But if teachers can stare down a classroom full of kids, they should be able to handle the parents.

And then the parent goes to the principal who tells the parent what ever they want to hear and holds it against the teacher. Welcome to the real world

Posted by: mamoore1 | August 31, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Having been on both sides of this, I think I can empathize with both sides. But really, the teachers are the ones who are on their feet all day with our kids, talk to us all evening, then have to be prepared for the students again the next day.

For the teachers this is a 14 hour day and they have to be there, prepared, for the next day. For teachers with small children this BACk to school night is very tough. For teachers with school age children, they often miss out on their own child's Back to School night.

Knowing that helped me to understand when my daughter's second grade teacher told us parents to "please use email, because if you are just calling to chat, I don't have time." LOL She really said that!

Posted by: celestun100 | August 31, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Thanks celestun,

On BTSN, I'm at work for 14 hours, and get home after my daughters' bedtime so that I can see my student's parents for 5 minutes each in a roomful of 30 parents...

who exactly is this helping?

Posted by: someguy100 | August 31, 2010 8:42 PM | Report abuse

GO TEACHERS! If you've never taught second grade, please don't tell me how to do it. Assume that in my seventeenth year, even in DCPS, I do know what I'm doing. And, yes, email me because I don't have time to chat!

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Posted by: ssdfknwefo | August 31, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

I teach Autistic Suupport K-2 in a small school with a total of 4 Autistic Support classes. Here's what we do on Back to Schoool Night.

1) Parents sit for (yes, too long) in the auditorium listening to the principal, school counselor deliver a pep rally. They then seriously discuss rules on truancy and bullying. State representatives and local church leaders speak to the audience as well and usually talk about how they help support our school academically or help families in need.

2) The four Autistic Support teachers bring all parents to one room for a PowerPoint presentation that gives an overview of the complete program, academics, behavioral supports, speech/language and inclusion.

3) Then, parents go to individual classrooms and can discuss any topics with the teachers. There's never enough time for this portion!

I firmly believe that the more information you give parents at the beginning, the less problems you have down the road. Parents want to know what their children are doing in school all day. No one should wait until report cards to get a view into their child's daily life.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | September 1, 2010 6:44 AM | Report abuse

I have often wondered why some parents who believe they know so much more about education than the teachers and principals don't work in the field. These experts should work full time in the classroom for years and years if they are so very knowledgeable.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | September 1, 2010 7:31 AM | Report abuse

I believe back-to-school nights serve a useful function when the teachers provide a brief overview of the course/class expectations and long-term project due dates (quarterly projects, science fair, etc.) and other important issues. When students are young (early elementary age) they can't verbalize or don't know these things to convey them to the parents. When my children got older, they were not always as forthcoming as I would like. Or maybe it was just that I sometimes got an incomplete picture. Sometimes I saw a syllabus, sometimes I didn't. Some syllabi are very general and others more specific. Back-to-school night serves to provide information and elaborate on information already available. I find the information useful in supporting my children in completing assignments throughout the year. I also like to put a face to the names of my children's teachers, especially if I am going to hear about them from my children or will need to email them.

Posted by: mgribben | September 1, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

How can teachers complain about having one really long day a year when they have summers off and usually don't have other days where they are required to be there at night (granted some teachers may volunteer/be paid to be coaches and other afterschool activities)? I have no sympathy for those complaints. Its part of the job and if you don't like it, then you can do something else that doesn't require you to be at back to school night. This is an opportunity for parents to meet their children's teachers, hear about the curriculum and classes and at least on some level feel like partners in their child's education.

Posted by: commentator3 | September 1, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Hahahaha! One really long day a year! Summers off! I just love it when non-teachers presume to know our job just because they went to school once upon a time.

MOST days are really long days. I teach from 8:00-3:10 with one planning period and a 30-minute lunch. This is not nearly enough time to plan, grade, respond to parent e-mails and calls, and set up labs (I teach science to over 150 middle school students), not to mention all the other paperwork and chores we have to do. I arrive at 7:30 a.m. and don't leave until at least 5:00, often taking work home with me. I spend at least 3 hours every weekend working. I spend my summers going to workshops and planning for the next year. Back to school night is important to the parents, but it throws off my whole week. Don't presume that you know what I do - a great deal of my work happens when the students aren't even present.

Posted by: landerk1 | September 1, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Wow. With all this animosity between parents and teachers it's a wonder the kiddos learn anything at all. And it's only the beginning of the year! I've always looked forward to back to school night. I get to meet the teacher, get their email address for future concerns, a brief overview of the class which dear-school-aged-son never provides, and let the kiddo know I care about their academics. Now I'll wonder this week if the teacher really hates me for having to be there.

Posted by: justthinking2 | September 1, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I imagine a lot of DCPS teachers are reading this and thinking - parents actually come to back-to-school night? What a difference a few miles makes.

Posted by: dude7 | September 1, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Here is what I would say to that arrogant administrator quoted from a year ago, at the beginning of the piece:

You can see that I am the parent of my child. So do I know more than you do about my child? Yes I do. Do I know better than you what is best for my child? Yes I do. Would I want my child in a school with leadership like yours? No I most definitely would not. Do I choose to exercise my legal right to home school my children? Yes I do!

Posted by: howdydoody1 | September 1, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

Sorry Landerk, still not so much sympathy. You work a day job on weekdays. Some of us work many more hours including nights and weekends. Look, this isn't a comparison. The point is, back to school night is once per year. It's an opportunity to provide information to the parents of your students. Complaining about having to do this or any other work outside of the defined school hours demonstrates a lack of professionalism. Its amazing that teachers want it both ways -- a life like hourly workers, but the respect and compensation that other professions get.

Posted by: commentator3 | September 1, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

"Certainly it can take a strong personality to face some parents, especially in areas (such as the greater Washington D.C. region) where many parents are more highly educated than their kids’ teachers."

While pretending to defend teachers' knowledge of education subject-matter, our author condescending suggests that teachers are not highly educated.

Right there, you see why teachers take flak from parents. Just because someone is teaching doesn't mean s/he isn't just as intelligent as a "highly educated" parent or that teachers themselves aren't also "highly educated."

Posted by: jswanson1 | September 1, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

I don't know of any other profession that requires so much work outside of "work" hours. My husband works in an office, and while he's on call sometimes, he never brings work home with him. Lawyers get to bill their extra hours. Doctors have it rough when they are interns and residents, but they end up with much higher salaries in the end. Teachers have lower salaries and much more work than most other professions, and it's not "demonstrating a lack of professionalism" to point that out. I love teaching, and I wouldn't do anything else, but man do we work a lot if we want to do a good job. It's definitely not 9-5.

Posted by: landerk1 | September 2, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

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