Four Ways to Maximize Back to School Night

It’s the time of year again for Back to School Nights everywhere. Having just participated in my own children’s Back to School Night in Oakland California, I find myself meditating on what educators can do to create a powerful experience for families.

I vividly recall these evenings at the large urban high school where I began my teaching career. I would prepare an engaging presentation to “hook” parents into my classroom and prove my credentials as a young teacher. I awaited families feeling both nervous and excited. But when the hour arrived, I found myself facing at most two to three parents, and by the end I was lucky to have five. I left those nights dispirited and at a loss for how to change this pattern.

What was the point of Back to School Night anyway?

Though my own children’s school sees the opposite trend with nearly 100% parent participation, I find myself revisiting this question. What I realized is that Back to School Night is really about two things: building meaningful relationships with and gathering insight from families. With these purposes in mind, here are four ways to maximize the value of Back to School Night.

  1. Incorporate food and/or music.

Breaking bread (or perhaps just cookies) is a universal way to connect with other human beings, and music creates a more informal social atmosphere. Combined, food and music can serve to lower parents’ anxiety and create an experience of being in community rather than inside an institution. If you ask families to convene in a central location, play a mixed-tape style soundtrack until the formal presentation begins and have some basic food and drink on hand. Encourage parents to mingle and connect with one another, and save all receipts for reimbursement or tax deductions!

  1. Offer a few core messages through stories and visuals.

With the transition to the Common Core and the tangle of other initiatives we all face, there is a temptation to over-share with families. As a professional, I am immersed in these initiatives, but as a parent I quite frankly don’t have much interest. What I want to know is this:

  • Who are you (as a leader or teacher), and what is your story?
  • What are your core values (as a school and/or as a classroom community) about learning and social-emotional development?
  • How do you want to be in relationship with me and my child?

If your presentation addresses these three areas, I’ll relax and feel more confident sending my child to you each day. Remember that people connect through story and image so if you are doing a Power Point presentation, lean on images over text and try to limit to 10 slides or fewer.

  1. Seize the moment to gather soft “data” from families.

My daughter’s lovely first-year teacher had a one-page graphic with four question “bubbles” we could populate about our daughter. The questions asked for our knowledge about her strengths, challenges, learning style, and learning needs. Here’s a link to a similar parent questionnaire:

This simple 5-minute activity will offer rich insight into your students and help you to differentiate your approach. You might also ask families to write you a letter to you about their child answering similar questions.

  1. Make time at your next staff meeting to reflect on Back to School Night.

There is always room for growth and improvement. When we make time to reflect on an important event like this, we model what it means to be a learning organization. In your next staff meeting, do an after-action review, which centers on three questions:

  • What happened? (or what did we observe and experience?)
  • What did we learn?
  • What are the implications for the next time we do this event?

Have someone be the group note-taker as teams share out insights and surface themes and patterns.

Which of these ideas resonate with you as a leader or teacher? In what other ways do you use Back to School Night to build relationships with families?

Shane Safir is a coach and professional learning facilitator who has worked in public education for 20 years. In 2003, she became the co-founding principal of June Jordan School for Equity (JJSE), an innovative national model identified by scholar Linda Darling-Hammond as having “beaten the odds in supporting the success of low-income students of color” and “challenging the status quo by providing opportunities for low-income students of color to become critical thinkers and leaders.” For more information, visit

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