Parents’ Night: Let’s Talk About What Matters Most

Dear Mom and Dad,

I want to invite you to the school’s open house that we call Parents’ Night. This tradition gives parents a chance to walk in the footsteps of their child, or better yet to sit in the undersized desk. I know you are dreading it. You have been here and done this already — maybe so many times you could offer the talk you expect me to give. Maybe you have already found frustrations in the first few weeks of school and you are coming with a closed mind to voice your list of questions about the way school interacts with your life in the evenings.

Some of you are looking forward to it, aren’t you? There must be a handful who are eager to get a glimpse inside the mind of your child when he/she isn’t with you.

It’s true this event gives you insights. It sets the table for the dance that occurs between student, parent and teacher for the rest of the year. Traditionally, teachers share expectations for homework, tests, field trips and further communication.

This isn’t why I am inviting you. We can establish all of that in an exchange of handouts. I have changed the agenda. We can use this as an opportunity to start a new dialogue between us.

Instead of sitting passively in rows filling the space, let’s pull up a chair to the same table and talk with one another about what matters in education. What is the purpose of school? Let’s spend the time asking the deep questions that push our thinking and clarify our intentions. Instead of focusing on how many minutes of homework to expect, let’s discuss the value of homework — the anxiety it creates and the reason it matters … or doesn’t. Let’s roll up our sleeves and talk about the ways the world is changing and requires us to change the social, emotional and educational experience for our children. Let’s find common ground even if our politics, our religion or our values don’t align.

I want you to know my bias before you arrive. I want us to come to the agreement together that we both value learning over grades. Let’s start there and then find the ways we can communicate that learning process between us, so that the child has the best opportunity to develop intrinsic motivation, with a mindset on growth — factors that we know make a difference in his/her future.

If you are coming to Parents’ Night expecting answers, there are some answers I can give you now. Yes, I think some types of failure are imperative to learning. Yes, I think your child is imperfect … and quirky … and sometimes sad … thank goodness. Yes, your child is making progress — in his/her own time exactly as it was meant to be. Yes, everything is fine … and sometimes it’s not. You knew all of this in your heart already. And yes, I think you are a good parent.

As you read this, I can hear your inner thought process. “School as I knew it when we were growing up was good enough. We turned out OK. Why change?” The answer is simple: Because we know better now. When we know better, we are obligated to do better. We can continue to tweak the traditional educational system, point blame at each other when it doesn’t work and let the children slip from one year to another. We can be happy with “good enough.”

Or … we can take all we know about learning, productivity and motivation and together design to the edges of spectacular.

If you are intrigued, pull up a chair. Let’s talk. See you at Parents’ Night.

Elizabeth Hofreuter is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She has two daughters, ages 9 and 13.