When my son Sam was in second grade, I sat – really squatted – in a tiny chair in his classroom to hear his teacher – let’s call her Ms. Rose – talk to the gathered parents about the classroom atmosphere our kids would experience that year. One parent mentioned with a puzzled expression that her son had shared with her what sounded like a very questionable exercise that the kids had been asked to do in her class. I forget the exact exercise but recall that it sounded absurd on its face. Ms. Rose smiled and replied calmly, “I’ll make you a deal. You don’t believe anything your son or daughter tells you about what goes on in my classroom, and I won’t believe anything they tell me about what goes on in your home.” I immediately knew Sam was in good hands.
In the coming weeks, many of us will stumble awkwardly through our kids’ grade schools, middle schools, and high schools carrying a copy of their daily schedule, trying to find their lockers, looking to understand their path through the school each day, and thinking back on the energy and chaos of our own school years. Most importantly, we’ll have the chance to spend 7-10 minutes with each teacher. For some of us, those few minutes will be the only exchange we have all year with a person who will impact our child’s learning. How can we make the most of that, and every interaction we’re afforded on back-to-school night?
Andrew Selesnick has been an educator for almost 30 years. His career has taken him from English teacher, to high school principal, to assistant superintendent, and for the last four years to the superintendent of the Katonah – Lewisboro School District in Westchester County, New York. As the father of two high school students himself, he has been to more than his share of open house events at schools, from just about every angle. We had a chance to meet recently to discuss best practices for everyone regarding these rites of passage. The lessons he shared are applicable well beyond the unique structure of back-to-school night.
Jay Sullivan: The typical open house structure doesn’t allow for much interaction. How do we get the most out of the evening?
Andrew Selesnick: There is an overarching attitude we can all have about the experience. But there are also some specific things we can do.
Sullivan: What are the big picture items parents should start with?
Selesnick: Assume good intentions. The teachers are trying to pack a lot into a short time period. They have the best interests of your kids at heart. As you are racing around trying to find your kids’ classrooms, you’ll appreciate how your child is shifting gears so many times in a day, from science to history to gym, etc. Now look at the number of parents in the room with you. The teacher has that many kids in the class each day, and every hour or so a new crop comes in. There’s a lot of shifting gears going on for the teacher as well. In each period, the teacher is thinking about which kid is struggling, which kids need to be challenged at a higher level, and which kids they haven’t called on in a while and need some attention. If you assume the best of intentions on the part of the teacher, you’ll naturally approach the conversation with a positive tone.
And teachers need to make the same assumptions about the parents. The pressure has become fierce lately to make sure every child is meeting their potential. That’s a lofty, albeit legitimate, goal, and one every school should aspire toward. With the pressure, or even the perception of pressure, ratcheting up on both sides, it’s understandable that teachers and parents approach their interactions hesitantly, perhaps even defensively. The more honest and open the parent-teacher partnership can be, the better. Open lines of communications will allow both to share their unique expertise about the child. Teachers should assume they will get positive, realistic, legitimate questions and concerns from parents. That will help everyone have a more relaxed exchange.
Sullivan: It seems that tension is driven by a lack of trust.
Selesnick: I’d say it’s more a lack of a true relationship. Both the parents and the teachers have a relationship with the student, but the parents and teachers don’t interact enough to have a true relationship with each other. As a result, both parties must try harder to be open and trusting during the few exchanges they will have during the year.
Sullivan: Would more interaction help?
Selesnick: More balanced interaction would help. Often, after back-to-school night, the only time teachers and parents interact is if there’s a problem. Nowadays, parents and teachers are connected by email. Communication between them when things are going well is important. Even a short email from the teacher commenting on an assignment well done, or a message from the parent indicating their child seems excited about the class, would help build trust. That way, if the situation arises where the parent and teacher need to address any challenges during the year, there is already a foundation for the relationship.
Sullivan: Beyond the broad approach of assuming good intentions, what specifically can both parents and teachers do to get the most out of the school event?
Selesnick: Teachers will often focus on sharing the content of the course with parents. That can be conveyed better through a handout. I think everyone would be better served if the teachers spent the brief time they have with all the parents talking about their approach to teaching, the environment they hope to create in the classroom, and how they plan to try to connect with each student. They should just be themselves and let the parents know they view the kids’ education as a partnership. Most importantly, they should keep it brief and leave room at the end for a few questions. Relationships require listening.
Sullivan: Relationships also require two parties. What should parents be doing?
Selesnick: Parents might find the evenings more valuable if they ask good questions without assumptions. Ask, “What should I be doing at home to help my kid succeed?” Again, that goes toward the idea of building a partnership with the teacher. Even consider asking, “What should I not be doing?”
Sullivan: Can you elaborate on that?
Selesnick: Sure. Here’s an example. Let’s say you are helping you child with a writing assignment. Don’t have a pencil in your hand. If you have a pencil in your hand, both you and your child know that you’ll be tempted to jump in and edit the paper yourself.
Sullivan: That would never have occurred to me.
Selesnick: Your kid’s teacher might have very specific suggestions as to what you can do and avoid doing to help your son or daughter thrive academically. Another question both parents and teachers can ask each other is, “What kind of communication from me would be helpful?” That question avoids making assumptions, and helps people get what they need. The act of asking questions also goes a long way toward building trust.
Sullivan: So if I understand you correctly, we can all make the most out of back-to-school night if we, 1) assume the best of intentions all around, 2) focus on building a relationship instead of the content of the particular course, 3) ask good questions of each other, 4) listen well to the responses, and 5) create the expectation of further communication.
Selesnick: I think that would set us all up for a better evening, and a better pattern for interaction throughout the whole year.
Sullivan: Agreed. Thanks for the valuable lesson.
Originally published on Forbes.com.