Parent Night: Declaring Students’ Independence
A MiddleWeb Blog
My Back-to-School Night presentations, like my teaching style, have changed during the past two decades. There are still many important messages to convey at this annual September event. One thing is certain. My style of delivery has grown much more direct over the years.
The day I first stepped foot into a fifth grade classroom as a student teacher was the day I began to think about how to put all of the administrative, housekeeping pieces together to try to make the class run effectively, while also trying to make school and learning as fun as possible.
Student teaching was overwhelming. It was my first attempt to put teaching theories and lesson plan models from grad school into action – in a room filled with young, curious, expectant eyes. Having 20 to 40 sets of “grown-up eyes” on me at Back-to-School Night, however, was not something that my student teaching could ever have prepared me for. That was a different kind of terror.
No more butterflies inside
Prior to teaching, I had done plenty of presentations in conference rooms, at trade shows, and waiting on small tables in restaurants around Manhattan. Nothing prepares you for a room full of parents, though. To my young colleagues out there: it does get better. While the message I hope to give at Back-to-School Night hasn’t changed too dramatically over the years, I don’t have the butterflies in my stomach anymore. This year I even put away the notecards.
The combination of experience, changes in life circumstances, and a higher level of confidence in my abilities, has allowed me to look back into those parent eyes with much more candor, honesty, and empathy.
As a mom, I’ve been given the opportunity to view Back-to-School Night from two perspectives, one standing in the front of the classroom and one after taking a seat behind one of those tiny little desks. Being a parent and a teacher has helped me to set reasonable expectations for my students…and their parents.
Beginning the shift to independent learning
I need to remember, however, that what is reasonable to me may not seem reasonable to others. Most of my parents are kind-hearted, well-meaning people who love their kids. Most of them just don’t realize how much organization is involved in teaching and supporting a room full of eager, energetic, and highly disorganized learners.
Most of them do want to understand. They want to help things run smoothly. For many, this is their first fourth grader. This is their introduction into pre-middle school, and the beginning of stepping back to let their child step up and begin the transformation to ownership of learning.
They are unsure about how to best develop a healthy sense of independence in their child. Back-to-School Night gives me the opportunity to share the structure of how we will accomplish that transition and how we go about learning each day. The majority of my parents get it, and they respond positively to my message during our B-T-S Night chat.
There are always a few, however, who can’t seem to wrap their heads around my particular vision for helping their child gain independence. They seem to only be interested in special requests for special attention for their child (and themselves). I have to take those parents for who they are and try to let their naivety roll off my back. That’s the tricky part.
Back-to-School Night is a big picture event
As a parent, I appreciate the teacher at Back-to-School Night. I pay attention so I can do my best to be a help, not a hindrance, to them. As a teacher, I also know there is a good chance they’ve been at school since before the first bell, and probably found themselves eating granola bars for dinner a few moments before their presentation began.
As a parent, I have questions about my child. As a teacher, I know that my children’s teachers may have kids of their own to get home to. I would never approach them to discuss a specific question about my child…not on Back-to-School Night.
During Back-to-School Night, it is important to explain the curriculum the children will be exploring, and for parents to know classroom routines, homework policies, and individual teacher idiosyncrasies. But the most important message I want to convey at Back-to-School Night is that I’m there because I love being a teacher. I have their children’s best interests at heart and I need their help.
Kids who think for themselves
An insert that I included in this year’s Back-to-School Night packet came from a piece I found in Psychology Today entitled, “How to Raise Kids Who Think for Themselves.” It’s based on seven lessons about independence.
The article relates that children are full human beings; good teachers model self-expression; free play is crucial to natural development; conversation and collaboration are keys to learning; learning is driven internally by curiosity; creative children are often labeled mentally challenged; and children have to grow up practicing responsibility.
Most of my parents want their kids to become independent learners and thinkers. Most of them are not teachers. Most of them have no idea what is involved in the daily dynamic of a classroom. I do my best to explain it to them with honesty and humor.
Some Quotes from the Teacher during BTSN in 4T:
► “I know it’s hard to take a step back and let your child take ownership of his or her learning. But whether you realize it or not, middle school is right around the corner.”
► “If your child’s homework comes in perfect, I’ll think they understand everything completely and won’t know I need to give them a little extra help.”
► “I sent a grade home to a parent during my first year as a teacher. I told her that she got an A-plus on her daughter’s project.”
► “I don’t always have a chance to check emails during the day. Sometimes I get a chance during lunch, but the bottom line is that, during school hours, your children have my undivided attention.”
► “I have two kids, a pediatrician, a dentist, and an orthodontist. I have yet to schedule any of their appointments during school hours. It would make things a lot easier, but I don’t do it unless it’s an emergency situation. I’m asking you not to do it either, if you can help it.”
► “I will often call you from home, after my kids are fed and settled in. I hope this works for you. Please don’t be alarmed when the phone rings at night and you see my name on your caller I.D. I call with good news too.”
► “If you keep my private number and use it irresponsibly…Well, let’s just not go there…” (This one is usually followed by a knowing look).
For our kids and our sanity
Parents and teachers need to work together. Back-to-School Night is a night to communicate my expectations as a teacher clearly. My hope is that what I ask of my students, and their parents, won’t seem too unreasonable.
It’s an opportunity for me to fill them in on curriculum content, explain some of the juggling involved in managing such a large volume of kids, and ask them to work with me in a common goal, in the best interest of our kids AND our own sanity.
Here are some additional links to help teachers help parents: