Have meaningful conversations with parents and save the day-to-day routine talk for an email

By Jennifer Caputo

The thought of another typical Back-to-School Night pained me. I remembered all the previous times I’ve stood in front of a classroom filled with tired parents staring back at me as they waited to be passively entertained with the daily routines of their children for the new school year.

I couldn’t bear another year of standing in front of the room going over the curriculum, running through daily routines, talking about activities and field trips we’d be going on during the school year. I wanted more from the one night I would see these parents together during this school year. I had to make it count for me and for them.

Just like teachers, parents have busy lives and their time is to be respected. Parents are tired from working all day. They need to get home, prepare dinner, make sure assignments are completed, get the kids to bed, get lunches made and take time for themselves to wind down.

In addition, my time is to be respected also, and I wanted to take more control of my time with the parents. Because the parent/teacher relationship is so important, I wanted to know as much as I could about their expectations for the upcoming school year.

It was important for me to know what they wanted for their children. What were their expectations of me? What about the learning process was important to them? How did they view classwork and homework assignments? Was the student/teacher relationship important to them? How did they feel about working as a team with me to support the learning style of their child? What was their own personal history with school? Do standardized test results matter to them and, if so, how much?

It made no sense to go the traditional route, sharing information that can easily be relayed in an email. As educators, don’t we feel the same way about faculty meetings?

I wanted to meet the parents where they were, just as I do with the learning styles of their own children. It was also important for me to let the parents know my responses to the questions I asked of them. I wanted to allow parent voices to be heard.

Previous attempts to enliven Back-To-School Night

In previous years, I tried my best to work in some humor within the ten minutes I had my captives. I’d share funny stories here and there while parents would giggle, certain I was making them up.

Adding a raffle to Back-to-School Night was a brainstorm I had years ago. One lucky parent goes home with the latest nonfiction best-seller as a gift from me. At the beginning of the night, when I announce that all of their names have been submitted for the raffle, they all sit up a little straighter waiting to see who will be called as I showcase the beautifully colored gift bags with ribbon and tissue paper to match.

“The thought of another typical Back-to-School Night pained me.”

Flipping the night

So how could I make this night be different?

I knew there were many questions I wanted answers to, so before the start of school one September, I created a list of these questions and embedded them in a Google Form. I also created a Google Slides presentation of the year’s routines and schedules. I emailed the questions and the slides to my students’ parents.

In the welcome message that accompanied the email, I let parents know I would not be going over any of the information found in the Google Slides presentation except for the results from the questions. I encouraged them to contact me via email if they had any questions or concerns.

Once I received all of the parents’ responses, I took a screenshot of each graph Google Forms produced from the results of each question. I added each graph to the Google Slides presentation. It would be these results that would drive the conversation for the evening. I was excited about my new Back-to-School Night strategy.

Not what I expected

What happened that night after parents filed into the classroom was not exactly what I was hoping for.

I welcomed everyone with a friendly hello and introduced the book that some lucky parents would go home with that evening; and because we are creatures of habit, parents then sat, smiled, looked at me and waited to be entertained. This, after all, was all they knew from attending Back-to-School Nights year after year after year.

I reminded the group of our plan for the evening and how it mirrored the flipped learning done in class with writing and grammar lessons. Next, I pulled up the graph results and began to share their responses along with my own.

I asked for input, elaborations, questions, or concerns after each question and got nothing in return. Crickets.

It went like this slide after slide. No one added any information, asked any questions, or elaborated on their thoughts. I was beginning to think my plan was a failure. A complete bust. At one point, I even said, “This evening was about all of us having one big conversation, but I’m the only one talking here. Are you sure none of you would like to add anything?”

As the night wrapped up and parents began to file out of the classroom, I received plenty of positive feedback about the way the evening was handled. Complimentary emails flooded my inbox the following day, and it was then that I realized there was more than one way to have a conversation. The conversation at Back-to-School Night I was hoping for had already taken place within the graph results that were created weeks before I even met the new parents.

The idea of a flipped Back-to-School Night is foreign to parents who are used to being passively led through the daily events of their children’s school day year after year. This new format requires a kind of forward thinking on the part of the parents and needs time to be digested. They’ve never been asked to voice their opinions on this night.

Most teachers are hoping to get through the night unscathed, let alone ask a group of parents for their thoughts and opinions for the upcoming school year. For some, that’s like throwing yourself to the wolves. In that respect, I must admit I am more of an outlier. I tend to venture outside the norm by nature. I find the idea to be more exciting than scary.

Flip not a flop

Most parents found the flipped approach much more beneficial than the traditional presentation of daily events that can be easily shared through an email. Parents were happy to hear my responses to their questions that evening. Seventy-five percent reported they appreciated having their own voices represented in the graph format. Ninety-one percent appreciated having the Google Slides presentation in hand before the start of the school year. The flip wasn’t a flop after all.

This idea of flipping Back-to-School Night could work to build stronger relationships between teachers and parents; setting the groundwork for true teaming throughout the year, not just saying so, but doing so. At the root of those relationships lies the well-being of the kids and helping them through their school year with as much support as possible.

Don’t all relationships begin with a conversation? Let’s allow them to happen more often. 

Jennifer Caputo is the 2019-20 Sussex County Teacher of the Year. She is a fifth-grade teacher at Helen Morgan Elementary School in Sparta. Caputo can be reached at  jennifer.caputo@sparta.org.

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