Back to School Night — also known as Open House — can be unnerving for us teachers. With the right outlook and framing, though, this can become a yearly event you look forward to! The secret is laserlike focus on the purpose of Back to School Night. (And consequently letting the other stuff fall by the wayside.)

Back to School Night: Why we do it

It’s easy to feel insecure when you see other teachers preparing for Back to School Night in their classrooms, particularly in your first year.

In my early days of teaching, I was overwhelmed by all the carefully crafted projects that were being displayed on walls. The vases of flowers brought in. The pressed suits. The adorable letters written by students to their parents. Other teachers’ masterful preparation set my heart into a mild panic. Was I supposed to be doing that? Would the parents walk into my room with disappointment, thinking, “How’d our kid end up with this schmuck?”

(And on a similar vein, Pinterest — as awesome as it is — can be a freeway to feeling like Loser Teacher on Back to School Night.)

So I propose this: Let’s stop. Let’s stop the comparison and the acrobatics.

Instead, let’s focus on the Golden Ticket that will truly make your kids’ year phenomenal — the trust that is built between parents and teachers. It doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? It seeps with “feelings.” And it doesn’t inspire the “awwws” or picture snapping of the aforementioned crafts.

But it works. And it’s efficient. So instead of spending days prepping for this one night, you can put your focus where it belongs — on the kids and their everyday successes.

Back to School Night: Walking in parents’ shoes

When you boil it all down, here’s what parents want to know:

  • Will their child love school?
  • Will their child have friends?
  • Will their child thrive academically?

There are other things as well that I’ll touch upon further down, but that’s the crux of it.

Will their child love school?

If their child ultimately loves and respects you, they will love school. Period. That’s it in a nutshell.

This will be communicated by you being you. What does that mean? Being natural, open, and kind. If their child already loves you, the parents will be coming to Back to School Night guarded but excited. Is this teacher as great as their kid says? Yes! You are! So be yourself. Smile, laugh, and greet them like you’d greet a future best friend.

If their child doesn’t love you (yet), your relaxed and friendly attitude will lower the parents’ anxiety. When you are calm, approachable, and friendly, they’ll know that they can count on you to be a partner in making this school year a turning point for their child.

If you are nervous about hosting Back to School Night, think of your favorite person.

When you think of your favorite person being in the room with you, your smile and demeanor completely change. And I’d bet money that serotonin explodes out of your brain, making you an agent of contagious joy. Just a guess.

This isn’t about being fakey-fake. It’s about showing the great person you are. You can be professional AND be a warm, awesome human at the same time. If nerves have got your hands sweating and your body stiff, try this: imagine that your favorite person or animal is in the room. (Seriously. Try it right now.) Notice the lines in your face relaxing along with the rest of your body? Pull your shoulders up and back, take a slow lungful of air, and continue thinking of that awesome someone. Thinking of your favorite person is a magic pill to letting your authentic self shine through.

These days, I actually love Back to School Night because I can hardly wait for parents to see what a great year their kid will have. And when the adults walk into our room and see that they are welcome by someone who seems genuinely happy to meet them? Prepare for arms uncrossing, shoulders relaxing, and smiles-that-reach-the-eyes appearing. Let your true self shine and they will respond in kind.

When I get nervous on back to school night, I think of my two dogs.

When I’m nervous or feeling stiff, I think of my two pups to relax. Works EVERY time. I mean, look at them.

Because when you relax and don’t worry about yourself, families relax. Believe it or not, many parents are nervous too. Perhaps being in a school again sets them on edge if they had bad experiences with school as a child. Maybe they’re praying that this is the year that their kid likes school and doesn’t cry in the mornings. We teachers understandably tend to focus on ourselves and how we’re coming across, but parents have a lot riding on this too. When you focus on making them feel comfortable, you’ll find that your jitters about your own “performance” will cease.

Will their child have friends?

When a child doesn’t have friends — or doesn’t feel as if he has any friends — parents ache for their little ones. Like all of us, they want to see their favorite person thriving and happy. And while not every child needs or wants to be the center of a social circle, they do want to feel accepted and have a couple of good friends in the classroom who get them. They want to know they can let their guard down. (Keeping one’s guard up all day is exhausting, after all.)

Let parents know that you will support their kids socially. Let them know they can reach out to you with any concerns. That social issues are not superfluous. As Maslow pointed out, a child needs to feel safe and feel a strong sense of belonging before becoming a self-actualized, thriving kiddo. You may not always have the answers, but you can work as a team with the family and use the expertise of your colleagues to On Back to School Night, one of parents' concerns is "Will my child make friends?" help the child navigate those tricky social issues and emerge a more independent, secure person.

If their child doesn’t have friends yet, just hearing that this is a major focus for you and that you welcome their input will buoy the adults. They will know that you will be their ally in helping their child feel like he belongs.

Will their child thrive academically?

Every parent wants his child to work to the best of her level. If their child is struggling, how will it be handled? Will the child feel safe in approaching you if they are confused? Or if she already knows most of the material, how will you challenge her? These are BIG questions and if you are at the beginning of your teacher career, you may not have solid answers to these yet. (Relax — we all feel that way in our first couple of years.) Talk with a trusted colleague or team members. Every school –  and indeed every grade — handles this differently, so find out how your colleagues address this with parents. Over time, you will develop your own style and ways of ensuring that kids thrive. But do address it.

Don’t be boring at Back to School Night

I have many opinions about what to do and what not to do on Back to School Night. But they are just opinions. Obviously, do what feels right for you and your classroom/school environment. Take what works, leave the rest.

Avoid death by Powerpoint

Overly wordy Powerpoints are my pet peeve. Every sit through one of those? They are deadly. I’m getting sleepy just thinking about it.

The good news is that Powerpoints can be very entertaining if you limit the words on each slide. Photographs are where it’s at. So use them and have some fun! Show parents the things you’re planning, rather than describing it with only written words. So for example, if you are going over your homework policy, put a picture of your homework folder on the slide or a picture of a completed agenda showing where the parents should sign. Make your presentation something you would actually enjoy watching.

This koala has fallen asleep. Don't make your audience fall asleep on back to school night.

Don’t bore your audience.

If the mention of Powerpoint has got you panicking — “I’m supposed to learn Powerpoint now??” — then don’t do it! They are way overdone anyway. Only use this tool if it makes your life easier. You can easily do an old-fashioned in-person presentation with just a few props nearby so that you can show parents what you’re talking about. (So hold up the homework folder, for example, when you go over the homework policy.) Use cheat sheet index cards to help you stay on track so you don’t forget any of the important points you wanted to address.

Remember — the focus of this night is to establish a solid relationship with the parents and answer those three basic questions. (Remember them?) There’s nothing magic about a Powerpoint: it’s just one of many tools to achieving your overall goal of creating that positive relationship.

Reading aloud the entire curriculum? Zzz…

This is my second pet peeve. To my mind, the parents can look over the curriculum in detail later, if they wish. We only get a set amount of time for Back to School Night. I prefer to use that time talking about our classroom culture, expectations, communication, my teaching philosophy, how I will support the kids, and how they can best support our classroom and our kiddos.

In the past, I’ve said something to this effect: “You can find our curriculum at this site (or in this handout) to see what we’ll be covering this year in each subject. I generally like to devote our limited time together going over _______ (fill in blank) and answering any questions you may have. If you have questions about the curriculum, though, or just want to check-in, I’m more than happy to arrange a meeting with you any time!”

There are years, however, when I may VERY quickly gloss over each subject. And there are still other years when our grade team chooses to present together and may prefer to go over the curriculum together. So it’s important to remain flexible. The big takeaway, though, is don’t use the curriculum as a crutch to fill your time with the parents.

However you choose to proceed, do it mindfully in a way that suits your goals for that night. You’re leading this shindig, so make it purposeful and, if possible, entertaining! (Many parents are coming straight from work after a long day. Make them happy that they came.)

Other items to cover on Back to School Night

There are loads of things you can discuss on Back to School Night. Here are several to consider:

  • Homework: How does this work in your room? How can parents support their kids? What should parents do if their child has trouble with the homework? (My simple philosophy is that fourth grade homework should practice the basic skills. While I try to differentiate where I can, I can misjudge what a child can or can’t handle. If their student has to spend more than 20 minutes on their math homework, for example, then it is too challenging. The parents — or better yet, the child — can write me a note on his homework saying he had trouble, and I’ll meet with him sometime that day and/or rethink what I’m sending home with him.)
  • Field Trips: Where/when? Are there chaperones? How are they chosen?
  • Dismissal — how should a parent let you know if there is a change in dismissal? What if it’s a last-minute change? (Check with your school on your policies.)
  • Getting to school on time
  • Needed supplies?
  • Scholastic Orders? (If you do a big order in September, you’ll get TONS of points and thus TONS of free books for you classroom library.If you want more information about obtaining books for your classroom library, go to our Home Page and sign up to receive “8 Ways to Create Lifelong Readers.” It’s a free downloadable PDF. Plus you will receive our weekly newsletter, where I share information and stories you won’t find anywhere else on this little planet.)
  • Communication: How will you communicate with families? How can they best communicate with you?
  • Parent-teacher Conferences and how they can set up other meetings with you if they have concerns
  • Your background (this is less important if you are a seasoned staff member and more important if you are new)
  • Specials schedule
  • Standardized testing: what to expect
  • Your teaching philosophy
  • Rules/Behaviors. Tread carefully here. You want parents to know you run an organized and fair room and that you are on their kids’ side. You don’t want to come across as The Trunchbull. (She’s the horrid principal from Roald Dahl’s book, Matilda.) One thing I tell parents matter-of-factly — and kindly — is that all their cherubs will most likely make social mistakes that year. They’re only nine and ten, after all. They will sometimes intentionally and often unintentionally hurt others’ feelings. And that it is all part of learning and growing up. Then I explain how I will coach their kids on how to resolve those problems.)

A gamechanger for Back to School Night

When you can put a parent in their child’s shoes in school, it can be very powerful. Our district follows the Responsive Classroom curriculum, which includes a daily Morning Meeting. Toward the end our Back to School Night, I will encourage parents to join me on the floor in a circle and very briefly go over the schedule of a typical meeting. Then we get our hands dirty!

A quick game

Games are magic in helping people let their guard down. For a few years, I’d teach parents the game “Buzz,” because it’s easy and fast. In the game, you time yourselves to see how quickly you can pass the word “Buzz” along the entire circle. (I’ll do this the week before with their kids so the parents have a record time to beat.) This is flippin’ adorable. The parents become as giggly and vulnerable as the kids themselves. We do it for a few times and if they manage to beat their kids’ score, they usually cheer!

Here’s rough script for what I say afterward:

I learned this game in my teacher training and I was in a circle of other adults just like this. What caught me by surprise, though, was how nervous I felt about passing the word “Buzz.” And I was an adult! (Maybe some of you felt that too.) Which really made me think: imagine what our kids must feel!

We begin the year with simple but fun games like this that require them to participate, but in a way that won’t overtax their nerves.*  Slowly, they gain confidence. As the year progresses, the risks they take in Morning Circle will increase, but never in a way that is unattainable. This gives them a feeling of belonging and the willingness to take risks that is vital to thriving academically. As any of us knows, when we are stressed, sad, or feeling left out, we generally don’t learn or do our jobs nearly as efficiently than if we are feeling comfortable and accepted.

*Obviously, this can vary from year to year, particularly if you have a student with social anxiety.

It can be any game, obviously. Just keep it super simple and short. You’ll be amazed how quickly the time passes on Back to School Night.

A quick share

Another fun things to do with parents on Back to School Night is an Around the Circle Share. In our room we often use a Chat Pack, which has outstanding questions. At a recent Back to School Night, we picked a card that asked parents where they would like to travel by hot-air balloon. People were laughing and smiling and at the end of the evening, several parents were walking out of the room talking about their dreams of going up in a hot air balloon. A good share can make immediate connections between people.

How to end Back to School Night

Have a game plan for the end of Back to School Night. Some parents may seek you out and ask for an update on how their student is doing. You, hard-working teacher, will not have the luxury of hanging out afterward, as you need to go home, eat dinner, relax a little, and go to bed. As we all know, teaching without proper sleep is awful, no matter how much you love your job. So when a well-meaning parent wants to chat at length about their child, being friendly and trying to get out the door can be tricky line to balance. What many teachers do is have their exit planned from the beginning. Have your bag and coat ready to go when you begin so that when the presentation is over, you walk out with the parents, turning out your classroom light as you go. Invite them to email you to set up a conference if they still have questions.

Some years, even this can be difficult to do. Consider making an agreement with your team members to leave together. There’s strength in numbers. 🙂 If I see a colleague who’s been cornered at the end of Back to School Night, for example, I’ll politely remind them that we’ve been asked to leave the building. (And they do the same for me.) If you are lucky, your custodians will help you out too– after all, they want to get home as well — by informing you in front of the parents that you need to leave now so they can shut up the building. Check with your team and principal to see what the protocol is in your school.

Your Turn

In the comments below, we’d love to hear from you:

  • Teachers: is this your first Back to School Night? What questions do you have? Or if you are experienced, what strategies have worked well for you?
  • Parents: what was the best Back to School Night you went to?
  • Anybody: who was your all-time favorite teacher? (Those always make for the best comments, don’t they?)

As always, if you found this content valuable or if you know of somebody who would love to read this, please share on social media using the icons below.

Have a great week!

xoxo, Katrina

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