Ilana Spiegel, mom of four, former teacher and literacy coach, suggests questions to ask at back-to-school night.

Q. How can I make the most of back-to-school meetings with my daughter’s teacher? I don’t want to be pesky but I have a lot of questions about academic expectations and also how the teacher maintains a quality social climate.

A. Sometimes I think parents don’t know what to ask at these back-to-school nights.

I am about to engage in a back-to-school triathlon.  My oldest son Max is starting high school. My oldest daughter Charlotte is starting middle school. My younger son Jack will be in fourth grade. And Ruthie, my baby, is starting kindergarten. You would think with all the first days of school that have come and gone as a parent and literacy consultant, and before that as a classroom teacher, I would be a pro without a care or question. So why will I be attending four back to school nights, what kinds of questions will I be asking and how will I ask them?

For anyone starting in a new school, regardless of the grade, it is important to get the lay of the land: who’s who, what’s what and where on earth is the west cafeteria where you have to register?  A lot of back-to-school is logistics – figuring out how the system works and knowing who and where to go when questions pop up. It’s also important to know what my responsibilities are, what the teachers’ responsibilities are, what my children’s responsibilities are and how we can best support them.

Speaking of supporting our kids, there are plenty of pesky questions that are reasonable to ask if they are not addressed during the presentations:

Key questions to ask

  • How much homework should we expect?  There are lots of different schools of thought about homework and it’s nice to know that you and your child’s teacher are in the same building. Most people agree that 10 minutes per grade is reasonable. That means 10 minutes for a kindergartener or first-grader, 40 minutes for a fourth-grader, an hour for a sixth-grader and about two hours for a high school student. That said, most teachers and schools “require” a set amount of minutes to be read at home each night.  With my own children, I believe the minutes spent reading are in addition to the minutes spent doing other homework.
  • How will I know my child is growing academically and socially besides report cards and test scores? A grade on a test or report card tells me how my child is doing after the fact. In the education world, we call that “summative assessment,” or a summary of what was learned.  The problem with summative assessments is that if your child is struggling or has gaps in her understanding, waiting for a test or a report card is a little too late to do anything about it.  You want to know what kind of evidence of her learning along the way (in education-speak, it’s called “formative assessment”) the teacher will be looking for so she can adjust her instruction when your child needs it most, and so she can practice new skills correctly.
  • How do you help students negotiate the drama with peers both in the classroom and during recess? Use your words.  Know the difference between telling and tattling. You can work it out. Most of our kids are told to work out the social difficulties with little if any guidance in exactly what words to use, what to tell and how to work it out. You want to know that your child’s teacher and any support staff are trained in helping to coach your child and her friends to navigate the social land mines of independent work time and recess. By and large, when your child is engaged in a rigorous, in-depth and practical curriculum, many of the social issues become much easier to address, as she can use many of the skills she is learning to make sense of the social landscape around her.

How to ask a question of the teacher

Speaking of addressing issues, now that you know what to ask, it’s important to know how to ask.

True confession:  I am that parent. I ask the hard questions. My husband likes to say that the good teachers love having me as a parent and the not-so-good ones, well, not so much. It really comes down to one word – collaboration. If you ask your questions in a way that lets the teacher know you are on the same side, that you know her intent is good, that it isn’t about her or you but about your child and the children in the class, many of the concerns about being pesky seem to evaporate.

Perhaps it comes down to the old adage: It’s not what you say but how you say it.  Most teachers welcome the opportunity to talk about what they know, what they are working on professionally and how they are going to make that work for your child. Just like every wedding has “that guy” at “that table,” every class has “that parent.”  Just like “that guy” can be an annoying embarrassment, “that guy” could be the happiest memory of an event and “that parent” could not only have the admiration and respect of teachers and parents, but really make a positive difference for her child and all the children in the class.