By Andy Jacks

Have you ever been to a meeting and internally groaned hearing the speaker tell you how to create engaging and exciting lessons, when their lecture was anything but? We’ve all been there and complained about it. So why do we do the same thing to our parents at back-to-school night every year? Parents juggle babysitters and busy work schedules to invest in their children's education at night. As school leaders, we need to recognize this effort by providing memorable, interactive experiences to start the school year, not sit-and-get presentations about policies and procedures. If you want parents to come back and actively participate in your school, don’t take these opportunities for granted.

Consider back-to-school nights like a business desperately trying to reach clients and convince them to buy their product or service. Businesses use aggressive marketing strategies to affect their bottom line. Schools have a unique bottom line: our students and their success. But we should still have the same sense of urgency to convince parents to buy what we have to offer. Building parents’ trust in their child’s education will increase their support for your school and your shared goals.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Benjamin Franklin

Stores allow you to try on clothes or pick up the latest electronic devices before buying for one reason. They know if a customer tries out the product, they are much more likely to buy it. We took the same sales mindset at Ashland Elementary, school in Manassas, Virginia, during our two back-to-school nights this year. We have worked hard to ensure that every child and teacher has their own Kindle Fire tablet, and we use these 900+ devices for daily instruction with students and professional development for staff. Back-to-school nights are perfect opportunities for parents to experience firsthand how our students use 1:1 to improve engagement and personalize learning throughout the school day.

Parents started the evening by walking directly into their child’s classroom, sitting in their child’s seat, and opening up their child’s tablet. After a quick, live video introduction, I used a Nearpod lesson from our newsroom and pushed it to every device, which included visuals, polls, quizzes, and other collaborative tools, such as drawing and typing in answers. Teachers participated from the front of the room using their interactive whiteboards. Each teacher logged into our lesson, sharing the audio, coming live over the speakers. I used this opportunity to seek feedback as well as explain the tools. We have five characteristics that describe our schools vision and through a poll, parents voted on the one they felt we should focus on in school. Sharing immediate results was powerful and we saw that being “kind” was their number one priority. Instead of reviewing basic procedures when students are sick, we asked parents to take an online quiz. Seeing all of the scores on my end come out green and successful, we were able to move on without much conversation on that topic. Even our PTO got in and participated in a poll to gauge interest in joining PTO this year.

Instructional technology can be difficult to explain to the public if they haven’t tried out the tools for themselves. Following the schoolwide lesson, teachers used a variety of engaging methods in their sessions. One interesting example: Our teachers used Flipgrid to pre-record videos of students giving an update to their parents. The parents’ faces watching these videos showed the natural emotional connection they had with their child. In addition, the parents recorded a message of love back to their child that night to surprise the students the next day in school. Another example was using Aurasma to see how our augmented reality art gallery came alive, displaying students’ artwork turning into different pictures and videos once scanned with tablets.

Low-hanging Fruit

Not all engagement requires technology. Our teachers challenged parents with quizzes, practiced class attention grabbers, cooperative learning, and physically active brain breaks. Parent events are an extension of the school day so we should plan active lessons like we do for students.

School leaders and educators are often nervous about what parents will think of them, so they tend to play it safe and revert back to what has always been done. But parents appreciate effort and innovation over perfection. The positive reactions from our parents using the tablets helped us understand this better. Take a risk. Let parents interact with something new. Create an experience that they will enjoy and remember!

Andy Jacks is principal at Ashland Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia.