“On your mark!…Get ready!…Go!”
(Here’s where it all happens, at schools in “Anywhere, USA,” on a night most folks dread…)
Pumpkins, both live and the commercial glossy type dancing across school windows…crisp nights…high school football games and that Fall burst of color that seems to enflame the normally sedate hedges and trees of our landscape. All these usher in another rite of the season: the much-anticipated Parents’ Night, Open House, or whatever your child’s secondary school calls that evening of feigned conviviality, all too often dreaded by parents and teachers alike.
Here’s how the night plays out: a rousing welcome by top building administrators who put forth the many reasons a student is ‘lucky’ to go to this school; introduction of the respective (if not always respected) teachers; and then the starting bell, signaling a racetrack scenario.
Here, vast legions of parents stumble about, grumbling, as they attempt to follow an abbreviated schedule of their child who, in some instances, has either sabotaged the parent’s chances of seeing a suspect situation ( a class where Johnny or Mary is anything but a stellar performer ) or botched the schedule so badly that the frenzied parent is forced to roam aimlessly about darkened corridors, without a clue of what to do.
Now, forcing adults to mimic their teen’s day is bureaucratic madness in that even the teen, fresh in the vigor of youth, finds his schedule well-nigh impossible to execute: French, period 1, top level of the 4-storied main building, with his next class English, on the top floor of an adjoining building, separated by a city block of land in between.
All to be done in a 4 minute passing time. Track stars would have trouble, but middle-aged, confused parents, exhausted by a long work day, are expected to pull it off without a hitch.
Is it any wonder that parents who mastered the labyrinth would come into my room in a catatonic state? We teachers marveled at the fact no administrator ever field-tested the plan, actually walking (or more aptly running through) the proposed schedule. But they were perfectly willing to unleash it on unsuspecting parents.
My real reservations about this evening arose from how staged it was. Whereas a teacher develops rapport with her students (which allows her to banter with them while imparting information,) no such rapport is in place that evening.
The afore-mentioned glassy-eyed parents come in, sit, and stare, hoping to determine something of the teacher’s ability, by a simple, one-shot, on-site observation.
I remember when I’d not yet sharpened my skills at tailoring the pace, tone, or style of delivery to my audience, I looked out to see the “washing machines” in the parents’ eyes, that state of suspended animation to which they went, where they resembled the old Whirlpool front-loading washers, as they filled up with water.
Quite simply, I was boring these people to death. They sought escape any way they could. And I could almost taste the question they begged to ask: “Is this what my kid goes through every day? How do they stand it?”
At these points, I wanted to scream, “No, this is far from what we do every day!” I wanted to protest the unfairness of a system that saw me perform this 1-night, stilted operation in front of people already maxed out from the day’s activities.
In later years, I determined to put the best face 🙂 on this night and have fun with the parents. I duped them into playing a pseudo-student role, engaging them so that I’d never have to see the dread “washing machines” again.
My rationale was simple: if I didn’t allow passive recipients in my students during the day, I wouldn’t allow it with parents, at night, either. They had to invest in their time with me as well.
To that effect, I started by asking their names, connecting in my head, parent with child, trying desperately not to blanch as one particular name leapt to consciousness (“So this was the person who produced that child!”) Then I went into my routine…jousting…parrying…engaging…moving about to keep their attention, while I spun out my lesson.
At times, I quizzed them on something I said earlier and if they begged off answering with, “I don’t know…I didn’t hear…,” I’d pretend-pounce. We laughed and had fun in the midst of all. It was a grand scheme: What I did in that space of 10 minutes was a simulation of what I did every day of my career where it mattered most– with their children, my students.
They just wouldn’t even realize it until a bell signaled them to pass.
It’s too bad I only learned to be more relaxed with my parents in the last third of my career, but as with many instances, it takes years for the developing teacher to master a style that works.
My new “take” on the night came as result of a suggestion of science teacher friend, Lynn DeLucia (with whom I worked for years). She taught me to harness parents as allies, on that important night, no longer regarding it as regrettable nuisance as much as opportunity to bond with them, letting them see the ‘Real Me.’
Only then did the evening become for me, “Parents’ and This Teacher’s Night.”
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(The above is a chapter from my book Chalk It Up! To My 30 Years Before a Class, available at a future point on this website).