Advice for Back-to-School Night

There are many yearly rituals that come with schooling in America, and Back-to-School Night is one of those time honored traditions. I was an elementary educator for 12 years, so I consider myself a bit of a Back-to-School night pro.   I knew how to tug at the parent’s heartstrings with the personalized notes and photographs. I knew how to present the curriculum and routines in the least possible boring fashion (at least I hoped they weren’t too painful to sit through). I knew how to politely beg for volunteers and guilt parents into donating classroom supplies.

I’m so used to being the one who cautiously planned, meticulously organized, and nervously presented that it was  a bit surreal to attend my first back-to-school night as a parent.  Being the one who sits in the tiny seats was odd for me, but I the classroom setting is akin to my natural habitat. I feel 100% comfortable there. I am familiar with the routines.   I speak the jargon. But even with this high level of familiarity there were some things that caught me off guard. It made me realize that if I, a seasoned educator, could be a touch overwhelmed by back to school night, then it might be worth creating a helpful list of tips and tricks for my fellow parents who don’t have educational backgrounds.

Here are 3 useful tips I have come up with, informed by my experiences as both a parent and an educator.

1) Get there early

Arriving early is a perfect chance for informal parent networking. It is nice to catch a minute with other parents. You can introduce yourself if you are new, and maybe make some parental pals. If this isn’t your first rodeo, you can welcome the uncomfortable newbies. Maybe you can finally meet Sammy’s parent, because your child has been talking about Sammy every night at the dinner table. Perhaps this is that chance to chat up the PTO president to get the inside scoop on what initiatives the organization is taking on this year. None of these opportunities will be available if you are rushing in at the last minute.

Also, on a practical note- PARKING.  I was really surprised when I rounded the corner to my son’s school and found that not only was the parking lot entirely full, but so was the street parking all along the main road. When I was the teacher, I had always arrived so early to prepare (or had never left after dismissal), so traffic and parking did not even cross my mind.

Besides securing VIP parking, getting there early is beneficial because often there are sign ups. PTO committee sign ups, Parent/Teacher conference sign ups, Room Parent Sign ups. If you want first pick, you need to be among the first to arrive.

While I recommend getting there early, please don’t dare try to grab the teacher’s attention for a private little conference before the official classroom visits. Teacher’s HATE that.


2) Learn the Lingo (then let your kid know you are on the same page)

It is really hard to filter important information through the understanding of an elementary school student. My first grader kept coming home referencing seeds and coins. I had no clue what he was talking about, but inferred this this was some sort of behavior management system the school had established. He also kept insisting that they didn’t get to take books out during their library day, which just about blew my mind and sent me into nerdy rage mode.

Each school has their own unique terminology. Back to school night is the perfect chance to begin to speak the school’s language. Turns out I was right about the behavior system (the seeds of kindness is a school wide innovative and the coins are a classroom based token system) but I was way off on the library issue. Turns out they have double library, with one day being devoted to book exchange and the other to research skills.

Once you are in the know, you and your little one can communicate more effectively about their school day.   As soon as I got home from back to school night I let my first grader know I was so proud of all the coins he had collected in his classroom. We brainstormed ways to work towards earning a seed of kindness. I felt an instantaneous improvement now that we were using the same vocabulary, compared to earlier that day when I had been nodding politely and smiling foolishly as he prattled about names on seeds on a bulletin board in the hallway.

Also, if you don’t understand what a teacher is talking about-ASK! The lexicon of schooling consists predominately of annoying acronyms.  You will not sound stupid if you ask, you will sound like an intelligent,  concerned parent whose background doesn’t happen to be education.


3) Communication Preference

Do not leave back-to-school night without a clear understanding of how your child’s teacher would like to be contacted. Teachers have their preferences. Some like the old fashion note in the homework folder, others like the security of email. Tech savvy teachers enjoy the immediacy of an app with a messaging feature like Class Dojo.   Whatever the preference, find it out and use it. Parents and teachers ought to be educational partners, and being able to contact each other to communicate is the start of that beautiful relationship.


Hopefully these 3 tips will help you make the most of back-to-school night.