Back to School Night 2007

Which is by far the most insecure, awkward, queasy night of my year. By a long shot. You got anything fun or worth copying? You got any insights on this one? What do these people want from me? I’m pretty sure that once I have a kid of my own and participate a bit from the other side of the lectern, I’ll be a lot better from the teacher’s end of things.

What I did, approximately:

  1. had a student take digital photos of students learning, looking delighted in their teacher, etc.
  2. cut a slideshow together in iPhoto (set it to the opening of “Pitter Patter Goes My Heart” by Broken Social Scene – great track) and
  3. played it during the passing period while I
  4. greeted parents at the door. I didn’t see a lot of that from other classes around the courtyard.I don’t see a lot of that during the students’ regular passing period, for that matter, which I think is an opportunity missed. 90% of my classroom management takes place outside my classroom, seven minutes before class starts.
  5. tossed up an autobiographical slide.
  6. admitted they’d done more of these than I have. I told them that I had to be perfectly honest, that all of today I’d been trying to figure out what they’re after, what their game is here, so I could play to that.
    • “Do you want to know if I like your kids? I do.”I wouldn’t have even brought it up if it weren’t true. I’ve rarely disliked a kid. My students don’t control me that much. I’m often neutral and task-oriented with some kids. This year, though, I dig all my kids. Almost all of them are funny, which is also great.
    • “Do you want to know if I like my job? I do.”
    • “Do you want to know if I work hard for your kids? I do.”The line between hobby and job has become very gray, I told them.
    • “Do you want to know how this class is any different from other math classes your student has taken?” I told them about the visual math class, about very little homework, about the testing strategy, all while trying not to indict my departmental “How other math classes screw this up … ” is an uncharitable way to introduce your assessment strategies, strategies which other math classes totally screw up.

What they did, approximately:

  1. told me they had kids older than me.
  2. reacted to my attempts at humor with the same nervousness you do your kid at a piano recital, so excited he’s up there, doin’ great, but really nervous he’s gonna blow it, totally choke, burp loudly, drop his pants, or say something inappropriate.
  3. reacted all over the place to my homework policies. In one class, a coupla parents expressed what could charitably be described as suspicion and what could accurately be described as hostility. This one deserves some reflection.
  4. left. After ten minutes, ten awkward minutes leavened only a little bit by my self-deprecation, they left.

What’s your show look like?

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. From my class of nine students, grades 9-12, I had one parent show up for Parents’ Night. This is not unusual for our district, particularly since the elementary Open House (which I also attended) was the following evening.

    I gave the Parent a one page handout with a brief course description and links to our (soon to be activated – I hope) class wiki and blogs and my personal/professional blog. He watched the Animoto short I made about the school day, we talked about his son’s grades and hopes for the future, and he took my business card as he left. The next morning, I gave copies of the handout to the other eight students.

    For the elementary Open House, I set up a few displays and talked to ten sets of parents about the Library and reading.

    Pretty low key, but at least I was visible and accessible. Maybe I’ve sown some good will that pay off in days to come.

  2. Yeah, BTSN is a waste of time, from where I stand. I hang out for 2.5 hours just to meet about 10 parents (25 parents at the most… out of 150 students). I just frankly don’t care much about the night and could stand to get rid of it on my campus. It’s nice to talk to these parents, but the ones who care enough to make it out to the school from 6-8 on a Thursday evening are not the parents I’m worried about. It’s the parents who don’t care enough about their child’s performance in school to show up that I want to talk to. Otherwise we’re preaching to the choir. So I don’t do a song and dance at all anymore; I stopped that about 6 years ago, though I used to do it and know exactly how you feel, Dan. I just put my syllabus out there, leave books around the room, and answer any questions they ask, whenever they ask. Parents come and go as they please.

    This year’s BTSN promises to be completely different as we’re ditching the classroom visits in favor of something more like round table department discussions with parents. We’ll be in rooms by course level and answer general questions. It’ll leave things much more up to the parent about which teachers to visit, when, and for how long. I’ll write a post about it as we get closer (it isn’t until October 23).

  3. Okay, from the parent end, my favorite part of this (and this was the first time my kid’s high school has done this, though mine did when I was in HS) is 1) seeing what the teachers look and sound like. It’s so much easier if you hear a story about a teacher to ground it in reality if you’ve got a mental picture of the person. When asked how old their teachers are, both of my older kids (13,16) look at me like I’m insane. Unless they’re wearing braces and waving around a learner’s permit, or look like their 84 yo grandmother, they’ve not even got a clue as to their age.

    I also want to know if there’s anything that’s particularly important to you/will drive you insane. Then when my kid tells me he did it, I can say but you already knew that would drive your teacher insane.

    However, from attending a bunch of these? Turns out a lot of other parents are crazy. I swear some of them come loaded with at least one hostile question for everyone they meet. Or they ask bizarre questions or demand that the teacher do the one thing I was glad they didn’t.

    Yours sounds fine, great even, far more planned than most. Some people are very wedded to homework. Honestly, I think math is one of the places where doing it again that night might help it stick, but hey, if they’re learning…

  4. Yeah, I am somewhat uncomfortable with that night every year myself (and we actually have two parent nights, one is a total open house format and at the second one the parents rotate through their child’s schedule, 10 minutes per “period”). Not that either night is confrontational at all, but I guess I just get nervous when I can’t truly know what exactly they’re going to ask me, and in front of a group of other parents. I intentionally don’t fire up the technology, because for some of the parents (and me!) it’s very tempting to sidetrack us. But the “wild card” nature of an open house format is a little unsettling to folks who are accustomed to being in control when we run through our daily classes.

  5. Wait a minute. What’s this “Guinness World Record, 2004” business? Do I need to go through your archives and find something I missed?

  6. Are you preceived as not giving enough homework? It seems parents these days (maybe parents have always been this way) are especially obsessed with homework. “Gotta keep up with the Chinamen!!!” they probably tell their kids. Although, I don’t know why you need much math to be an hourly wage worker at Wal-Mart which is pretty much the only job these days. With peak oil around the corner…
    Enough of my cynicism,…I do have a few questions that I don’t think you addressed. Maybe you did, and I missed it.

    1.) what was turnout?
    2.) Out of curiousity. What is the demographics of your school? It seems mostly white. Is it a wealthy area?
    3.) Do parents ever ask if their kid LIKES school? Is happy? With so many miserable kids (people of all ages actually) out there, I wonder if any parent walks up to you privately and asks, “so does my son have ANY friends?”.

  7. Good post. My back to school night wasn’t 1/2 as impressive. Then again, no one had any time to prepare nor were they even informed of everything going on. I always get a lot of parents come to visit me, though, so to that end, I was happy with mine.

  8. So no one runs any wild demonstrations or simulations?

    Wouldn’t surprise me. I mean you’ve got a tiny chunk of time and a pretty rigid agenda. I just figured, this being the blogosphere and all, there’d be somebody with something wacky.

    Anyway, to answer a coupla Pete‘s questions, turnout was strong. Ten parents per class, easy. I’ve done schools where I’ve pulled ten students total over five classes.

    The school is located just outside Santa Cruz, CA. It’s both a) a commune for hippie expatriates and b) a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. Wealth is all over the board. Race is very much homogeneous. That it’s the only high school in the district kinda brings ’em all together, though.

    Dianeanimoto … that was a good call. Won’t be long now before it calls attention to itself from overuse, but until then, it’s an impressive little gadget for just the purpose we’re talking about here.

  9. Wild demos or simulations in ten minutes? Nope, on Parent Night (my first & I was just a bit nervous) it was… here’s my webpage where you can find info about assignments & assessments, here’s the online gradebook. I was told to keep it simple and not overwhelm them with paper as they just want to put a face with a name and make sure the teacher is reasonably sane (this advice came from the teachers who’ve been on the parent side).

    As for turn out, I agree with Todd – the parents I wish had been there weren’t. The parents that were there – kids are doing fine.

  10. BTSN can be a tricky thing to nail down. My first few years, I thought it was my one chance to give parents all the information about policies and events that I could. That did not work well because it turned most people off. An older teacher advised me that parents weren’t there for a lot of information beyond class materials. They do, however, want to get a feel for you and the class. My job on Back to School Night is to reassure parents that their children are in a good place. I tell them a little of the curriculum. I anticipate some concerns about reading and spelling. I tell them up front about the homework assignment. I mostly try to convey that I am good at my job and I enjoy teaching.

    I also tried the video approach because I teach between two classrooms. I set up a video intro in the computer lab and ran it continuously throughout the night. From what I gathered, only about two people watched it. Oh, well.

    I know why you don’t assign homework, but surely you understand why other teachers do. And why many parents expect it. After all, siblings may have had AND LIKED the other math teachers. If you put the other teachers down (even by a small implication), you’re putting yourself on the wrong side of these parents. I have to dance the same tricky dance when it comes to explaining spelling instruction.

    All that said, I can’t believe those kids and parents wouldn’t be excited to be in your class. Keep up the good work!

  11. Yo, queasy, nerve-wracking, and all that, plus I get to do BTSN in my second language. The whole time. I rocked a way-too-text-heavy powerpoint because I needed it to function as a cheat sheet with the whole second language thing.

    I had about about 10% of parents. The writing assignment the next day was: “Where were you and your family?” Ninety percent of responses, contrary to what some in my next of the woods have labeled “apathy”, was “working.”

  12. I spent 13 years going through it as a teacher in high school. I’ve been to my son’s elementary school, but that was predictable and not too painful. This was my first year to go through the rotating schedule thing with my son, now in sixth grade. I HATED IT! From a teacher perspective, I felt sorry for those teachers who had to repeat themselves every 6 minutes and really had no idea what to say. From a parent persepective, I thought it was a total waste of two hours. I saw the teachers’ faces-great; I know nothing about them for it to make a difference. The rules and expectations are the same for all classes. OMG. The whole thing needs to be revamped. Maybe introduce teachers so parents can put a face to the name and then allow some time for parents to talk to teachers they might need to talk to? After that, maybe have mini sessions for parents, ex: about credits or keeping sane while housing a middle schooler. It just needs to be better from all perspectives.

  13. I usually try to set up some “science” in the room for the parents to do before/after my presentation (which is comprised of a few slides with info similar to yours.) One year in a bio class we were digging through pond muck to find various organisms, so I left all the muck and tools and microscopes and stuff around the lab for the parents to check out. (It helps if you have a student or 2 around to “remind” the parents how to focus a microscope.)

    Sometimes I’ll have a “do now” for the parents to do as they come in, like I might for the kids. Something simple, but sciencey…my old favorite is something like “One of the following terms does not belong. Cross it off and propose a title for the remaining terms: Water, Hydrogen, Salt, Iron Oxide”. I’ll literally call on a few parents to see what they’ve come up with. Sometimes it can be pretty humorous.

    I don’t have kids, so I can’t say for sure, but I feel like the parents really just want to meet their kid’s teachers, see what we’re all about, and maybe get a little idea about the class. My science classes are as hands-on as possible, so why not give a little taste of what it’s like for their students to be in my classroom? And just like on the 1st day of school, why do what every other teacher is doing?

    But I have it “easy” – I’m a science teacher ;-)

  14. As a parent who just attended her first HS back to school night:

    1) You don’t really have to do anything impressive. No one expects a fancy demo in 10 minutes.

    2) It was nice to put a face to the names of teachers we hear about.

    3) Two teachers had some of the kids do a skit (including the math teacher!) which effectively used up most of the 10 minutes so they didn’t have to say much :)

    4) Don’t bother telling them how young you are :-O

    5) Tell them how to contact you, and under what circumstances you’d like them to do it

    6) Explain how grading works, what you want the kids to do if they’re having trouble, etc.

    7) Brief overview of what’s “different” about you — so in your case your testing scheme, homework philosophy, etc.

    8) For freshman classes, possibly a brief generic overview of how things like report cards work. This is something I still don’t know…

  15. (this is late, but i just discovered this blog and am chewing my way through the archives).

    my take on back to school night:

    i used to treat it as an opportunity to answer parents questions. inform them, let them know what i expect from their kids, how their kids can succeed in my class, the usual syllabus, homework policy, and contact info routine.

    last year i decided that it needed to be more. it was my one chance of the year to teach parents the same way i teach my kids. i still tell them what they want to know, but all that goes onto a handout that i quickly review.

    most of my presentation is about what *they* need to do to help their kids succeed. how to create a safe study space for their kid. how to allocate time for their kids to study. how to remove distractions, be it electronics, siblings, or chores. how to monitor their kids progress in *all* of their classes. where to go for help with their kids behavior. and, most importantly to me, how to support their kids learning through sports or music or art outside of school.

    it’s not quite as effective yet as i’d like it to be, in part because it’s only for 15 minutes at the beginning of the year. but when my parents walk out of the classroom, i see them excited about how their kid is going to learn, and that’s another nudge to get their kids on the right track.

  16. Doug Riesenberg

    August 16, 2008 - 7:38 am -

    I too, am trying to follow the long chain of posts. Very nice to see such dedication and creativity. BTSN my first year at a new school proved to be quite interesting: more than one set of parents asked if I knew what I was doing! We had only been in school for 6 days and they were concerned that they “cherub” was: misplaced, in the wrong seat, not allowed to use calculators (department policy for some tasks/classes), wrong time of day for class, and that I intimidating due to physical size. “How could I have ever been hired?” Second semester BTSN was a washout, 5 sets of parents for over 100 students. As far as giving out information I am not so sure that the parents even bothered to keep the handout.

    As an aside, I love the look of your assessments — any chance of posting a editable template? (LaTeX Junkie)

  17. Do you have access to AppleWorks? I’m pretty I’m the last Luddite still using it but if you’ve got it too, I’ll post a couple.

  18. Doug Riesenberg

    August 16, 2008 - 8:35 pm -

    That would be great if you would post the examples. I am currently trying to revamp my Pre-Alg curriculum very much along the lines of your skills check-off. I thank you for being so open with your work and thoughts.