Parent Night . . . most classroom teachers schedule a meeting during the first few weeks of school. The task sounds straightforward — welcome parents, introduce yourself, and explain all the brilliant things that will be happening in the classroom throughout the year. But for years it has been my least favorite teacher task! I find it difficult to dilute all the meaningful work we do into sound bytes and fit them into an one-hour meeting. It reminds me of to trying to squeeze into that blue pair of pants in the back of my closet, too much into too little. I've tried various formats to find that perfect mix: provide visuals and handouts, question and answer sessions . . . and when all else fails, I talk faster. None of these strategies inspired the kind of evening I was hoping for.
Then last year, my amazing principal proposed that teachers have a new focus for Parent Night. She suggested we spend our time on building relationships with and among our families rather than dissecting the daily schedule. "Let's get the parents to do the talking, and we'll do the listening." Hmmm, that sounded intriguing; anything is better than chatting about handwriting programs, policies on birthday cupcakes, and recess rules for an hour. But exactly how do we do that? Her suggestion was to ask parents to share a goal they have for their child for the upcoming school year. Get them talking about what they feel is important. Could this be the format I'd been searching for?
I copied the usual handouts for each parent and included a detailed explanation of our schedule. I tucked them in a folder the children had adorned with pictures using their brand-new watercolors. This way the information was available to the parents who wanted it.
Next, I sat down. I moved a stool over to the spot where I usually stood. By sitting I became a part "of the group" instead of the presenter "to the group."
Then I began to talk about the students. I've always been pretty good at this part, probably because I'm talking from my heart. I expressed my passion for teaching children, explained why I loved my job, and shared a few funny stories about the class.
Now it was time for the new twist; it was the parents' turn to talk. I explained to them that we were going to take some time to get to know each other. We would go around the room, introduce ourselves, and each person would share a goal related to their child. I asked for a volunteer to begin, and off we went.
As parents began to share, I found I still had opportunities to convey essential material about classroom curriculum and procedures. When a parent brought up reading skills, I explained the Café Menu, our system for organizing individual and class reading goals and strategies. Another parent referred to math, so I shared our calendar notebooks. But instead of dispensing information by the "sit and get" method, I shared it in response to parents' interests and questions.
As the meeting continued, I took advantage of my "legacy" parents. These are the parents whose other children have been in my class previously. When a question arose that I felt they could answer, I would defer to them. They could give the "parent perspective," which was likely to be even more valuable to this particular audience. One gratifying outcome was the legacy parents set the bar for the group. They conveyed implicitly, "In this class we support Mrs. Prentice, we trust her, and we know that our children are in good hands." You couldn't buy better endorsements than that.
This new meeting format also helped me gather information about each family. One parent whose child reads two years above grade level, stated that her goal for her child was to learn to love physical education. I probably wouldn't have guessed that without hearing it. Another parent shared that their child loves science experiments. Now I can make sure that child knows where the nonfiction book boxes are in the science center. But my favorite and most poignant moment came when the mom of my inclusion student explained how her son had already been to five schools. She said, "If your child gets hit, it probably would be my son who did it," and she apologized in advance. Then she went on to explain eloquently what a blessing it is for him to be in this class with all the other children. That declaration earned her son a level of empathy that included invitations to play-dates at other classmates' homes throughout the year.
To add to the good-natured flavor of the evening, I passed out "door prizes." Prior to the event, I'd taken a class photo and made enough copies for each parent. I'd written names of the children on slips of paper and put them in a basket. After several parents had shared, we'd stop, draw a couple names, pass out a few pictures and then continue. By the end of the meeting, everyone was a winner and went home with a prize photo.
I had one last activity for parents before we finished. Sticky notes were scattered around the tables and I asked parents to write a short message for their child to find when they arrived at school in the morning. Everyone was more than happy to oblige. It was a pleasant ending to a successful meeting. All in all, we arrived as strangers, but left as friends. Now that's a Parent Night worth having.