Back to School Night....when parents see where their kids spend their days
"Let's make a deal. I won't believe everything they say about you if you won't believe everything they say about me."
That was usually my opening statement on Back-to-School Night. When I was a kid, it was called "Open House." Same thing. Kids cringe. Parents squirm. Teachers panic a little.
It's night school for parents who want to see where their children spend a good deal of the daylight hours. They get to tour the building, meet the principal, greet the counselors, sit in student desks, and hear a mini-lesson from each teacher. For teachers, there is perhaps more effort put into the ten-minute lesson on this night than any full-length lecture for regular classes. Let's face it: this is a visit by a hundred inspectors-general.
For principals and administrators, it's a summit conference. They are on guard against any false moves. As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. There is only one Back-to-School Night each year.
Appearances on this evening are of utmost importance. Women teachers wear their best "Good Morning, Miss Dove" outfit and the men, though not much resembling Mr. Chips, are spiffed up in ties and jackets.
This is a time when teachers want to weigh their words carefully. This is no occasion for rash statements, impromptu promises, or faulty generalizations. The gradebook is kept out of sight. No sense getting trapped into individual cases and specific examples.
The event is held early in the school year so that a good communications link can be established between school and home. But the timing is also a bit unfortunate. Teachers have barely learned to recognize their students' faces. Many names are not yet learned. Therefore, when Mr. and Mrs. Frimbley step up after class to introduce themselves and talk about their little Margaret, the teacher can be in a bit of a fog. Is Margaret the little girl in the back row who never has pencil and paper? Or is she the one in the middle who mutters under her breath? No time to figure that out now, since the proud mom and pop are bragging about their girl's performance in Mrs. Trimble's class last year and how she usually just loves school.
I once had a sparkling conversation with a set of parents about a kid that I thought I knew well. A marvelous writer, I said. His first efforts had shown remarkable talent. A thoughtful young man, too, who always saw both sides of every discussion topic. Not only that, but he was a poet. His early notebook entries had revealed a talent not unlike that of Wordsworth. The parent agreed wholeheartedly. They had noticed just the same traits. They left my room beaming, full of confidence for their young scholar and thoroughly persuaded that the young lad was being tutored by the most enlightened and perceptive instructor who had ever manned a chalkboard.
Later I discovered that I was thinking of another child. The parents I had talked to had stumbled into the wrong room. Their son was not even in my class.
Parents have wonderful poker faces. The nervous teacher on Back-to-School night scans the room, alert to every nuance and twitch. What are they thinking? What have they heard? Am I too strict? Is my grading scale too tough? It's hard to read what their minds are thinking as you smile and try to look as if you are enjoying the experience. I have found that the parents who seem to have the most obvious scowls are the ones who come up later and gush about what a great teacher you seem to be.
Back-to-School Night is a good thing. It helps parents understand what their children are doing each day. They get a glimpse of the world from the teacher's perspective, a viewpoint that is seldom expressed on the home scene where all arguments about school are heavily weighted on behalf of the plaintiff. Teachers, too, are reminded that they are not alone on the education front, and that the best lesson plan is based upon a partnership between school and home.
So, at the end of the evening, as parents and teachers file out to their cars, everyone is pleased with their visit to school. Everyone, that is, except the young student, who can no longer effectively complain to his parents about the teacher from another planet. Mom and Dad met her last night and they think she's nice.