Educators are designers. We are constantly creating experiences for parents, students, and other teachers, yet often don’t realize how much we can improve the quality of these experiences by considering the needs of these people during the planning process. What might happen if we redesigned school experiences and events in this way?
Back to School Night is an annual tradition that happens in the fall at almost every school in the country. While there are variations of this event, the most common one has parents heading to school to spend time getting to know their child’s teacher and to learn about the specific curriculum their kids will be learning. Despite this straightforward agenda, almost every teacher and parent that I know dreads Back to School Night. The pressure to share and absorb all of the details for the year in such a small amount of time can be overwhelming.
So if Back to School Night isn’t meeting the needs of parents or educators, how can we change that? Check out our tips for successfully redesigning this important evening to help everyone get the most out of it.
As you plan for Back to School Night, take some time to reflect on its purpose. Who is the intended audience? What do you want parents to get out of the evening? How do they currently feel about it? How do you know? Jot down answers to every question for each of your events. This may seem like a basic exercise, but it’s not always apparent why we continue to do some of the things we do in school.
Focus on What Parents Want
Talk to the parents of your students. After a colleague and I reached out to our parent community, we uncovered valuable information about their specific needs and wants. We came up with the following game plan for a successful, radically different Back to School Night:
- Avoid unnecessary academic chat. Don’t waste precious face-to-face time on Common Core Standards, textbooks, or assessments. Instead, email important information home—such as schedules, curriculum links, helpful articles, school policies, etc.—one week prior.
- "Flip" the experience. Ask parents to come to Back to School Night with an open mind, ready to participate and prepared. Explain a "flipped classroom experience" and asked them to do their reading at home in advance. This gives parents time to digest the information and think about any questions they may have in advance.
- Avoid lecturing about procedures and curriculum. Parents don't want to listen to a 45 minute presentation, and teachers don’t want to prepare one. Instead, focus on an experience that involves parents. For example, my colleague designed an experience around five pillars that would define their child’s year of learning: Community Building, Divergent Thinking, Growth Mindset, The Importance of Wonder, and Bridging Kids Toward Independence. Each topic included activities that actively engaged both parents and kids, instead of forcing them be passive listeners.
- Get to know parents on a personal level. Let moms and dads see for themselves that you're more than capable of teaching their children in a safe and nurturing environment. "My child spends six hours a day with you," one parent explained. "I want to know about you as a person and how they will benefit from having you as their teacher."
- Show off the students in your class. Parents are busy, and they want to have a sense of who else is in their kid’s class. Create a slideshow of your new class, and encourage parents to come up to the front of the class and introduce themselves and their child when their kid’s image was projected. This helps foster the establishment of a learning community in which parents feel like an integral part of the process, which can be very empowering.
- Model a typical day in the life of your student. Parents don’t always get a lot of information from their children about school. Give them a better sense of the type of experiences that your students will have by providing hands-on learning activities that demonstrate strategies their children would learn, while also illustrating who you are as a teacher.
As we planned this new Back to School Experience, we worried about how far we were deviating from what was expected. Would a community of parents who were accustomed to a "sit and get" style would be ready for this? Ultimately though, a quote from Angela Maiers encouraged us to persevere: "Courage is the ability to enter the unknown by confronting challenges, taking risks, and overcoming fears."
Our courage paid off. Parents left Back to School Night engaged and excited about the year of learning ahead for their children. Our success proved that by engaging with your target audience and taking risks to engage them in a school event can have a positive impact on your class, their parents, and start the year off on the right track. Try our advice for redesigning events in your own school, and watch how engaging parents will help you build a strong, supportive learning community that benefits everyone involved.