Fear, Loathing and Back to School Night

Back to School Night flyers (paper or PDF, if a school’s gone green) are often decorated with drawings of apples, pencils, books and smiling students. But the event is often fraught with tension and even fear and mistrust on both sides between teachers and parents.

I look forward to Back to School Night, but it seems I am in the minority. My husband and I are both “in the education business” (we’re both professors at Catholic universities in the northeast); many of my students are studying to be, or are, teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists. I’ve always liked — all right, loved — school and learning; seeing my parents go to Back to School night was non-controversial.

Even more, education and school are key to my teenage autistic son Charlie’s future and we really value opportunities to talk to his teachers and therapists and see his school, which is in another town and county than we live in. Charlie can only talk a little and we rely on notes and reports from the school to find out how he spends his days so any chance we can visit his school and talk to its staff mean a lot.

Tensions Surround Back to School Night

In a recent conversation with a former student who now teaches middle-school language arts, I noted that the phrase “Back to School” send a frown across her face. My neighbor has taught middle school math for almost two decades; talking to her the day after Back to School Night, I realized the extent of her preparations to meet parents, including having her own little daughter spend the night with her mother.†She was definitely surprised when I told her how much I liked Back to School Night and how I saw it as a chance to learn more about how Charlie spends his days. She reflected that she shouldn’t get so nervous about Back to School Night. Then she laughed and said, “but I still do.”

On Back to School Night at Charlie’s school, his teacher didn’t have the easy-going manner he does in his notes and at conferences. I had showed up in work clothes and whatever sweater I could grab; some parents were in shorts and very casual. But there were definitely those†dressed and sat on the edges of their seats and frowned when questions (“why are there all these empty classrooms and our kids have to share a room with another class?”) were†responded to with references to the “a” word — to the†administration.

How Did It Come To This?

As much as we †say we value education, reports about education policy, curricular issues, teacher training, special education law and the like are often received with polite attention and a yawn. Education often only makes the news when there’s a scandal, too often involving physical or sexual abuse, the teaching of topics such as creationism instead of evolution or — as highlighted by the teachers’ strike in Chicago — teachers’ unions and issues of tenure and evaluation.

Often it seems that teaching is a profession everyone has an opinion about†but too many are glad not to have to do. Teachers are deemed†selfish, our schools are perpetually said to be in a crisis, there are constant calls for reform by giving people “more choice” via charter schools.

Our education system does often falls short of meeting the grade we’d like to give it. I do think there is a lot of bureaucracy (and paperwork — certainly for children in special education) and administrative detail that often doesn’t seem to be too closely tied to actually educating children. I also know that, like it or not, some of those onerous regulations are better to have, such as demands for more oversight and documentation about the use of physical restraint techniques and seclusion rooms in public schools. As Charlie is autistic, he would not even be able to go to school without the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Even with the IDEA, parents of kids with disabilities still often find themselves fighting with school districts about appropriate school placements and services for children. A recent incident in which a non-verbal autistic boy went without lunch at his New Jersey school because his parents owed $2.00 for his lunch bill showed how rules and protocol can get in the way of common sense. The boy’s parents only learned about what had happened via a brief note from their son’s teacher. I wondered if the incident would not have blown up as much as it did if the parents could have been contacted during the day or some kind of more extensive communication about what happened and discussion of ways to prevent it had occurred.

I like meeting teachers, therapists and school staff as they’re the people whose work plays such a huge role in preparing Charlie for his future. I’ve been something of a “warrior mom” in the past and sometimes it was necessary to provide Charlie with what he needed. But sometimes contentious emails and recording every meeting just communicated to the teachers that we didn’t trust them and were questioned how well they were doing their job.

My neighbor, the veteran middle school math teacher, often gets home around the time I’m waiting for Charlie’s schoolbus. She may look tired; as she often tells me with a smile, she loves teaching and truly enjoys her job. How can we make Back to School Night as positive?

Related Care2 Coverage

The Myth of the Education Crisis

Why We Should Support The Chicago Teacherís Strike

Poor Kids Start School 32 Million Words Behind



Photo by woodleywonderworks

Love This? Never Miss Another Story.


Misty Lemons
Past Member 2 years ago

I'm Currently Trying To Effect Change In My Own Child's School District. They Recently Snuck In A Policy Without Parental Input That Will Double Punish Children For Bad Behavior. If The Child Gets Sent To The School's "Time Out" Room 3 Or More Times In A Semester The Child Will Not Be Allowed To Join Their Friends And Peers During The School's Holiday Parties And Festivities. My Question Is Why Punish Them Again For Things They've Already Been Punished For? It Isn't Fair And I Don't Think It Will Send The Message They Are Hoping For To The Children. Please, Sign The Petition To Help These Children. I Want To Help Them Have A Voice When No One Else Seems To Be Standing Up For Them. The Next School Board Meeting Is Coming Up And I Will Present The Petition To The Board Then. Thank You For Your Support.


Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Lynn D.
Lynn D.3 years ago

Thanks for information!

Nils Lunde


a             y m.
g d c.3 years ago


Winn Adams
Winn Adams3 years ago


Emilia M.
Emilia M.3 years ago

I remember when I went to high school, my mom would go to back to school night. She only went I think for two years. At least she got to meet some of my teachers and know what I was doing in school. It sucks for some teachers when no parents come at all and they go through all that trouble of preping the classroom for the parents to see. I feed bad for those teachers. I think maybe some teachers don't like back to school night because it's more work for them to do and then if they have students that don't care about school, they still have to go in case if some parents do show up. Kudos to those parents that do go to back to school night!!

Ian Fletcher
Ian Fletcher3 years ago

Lack of funding and investing in education is a world-wide problem. Until we get our priorities totally rewired in all societies North and South, gloomy and dark schooling will remain.
Any teacher with more than ten students per class will not attend the students nicely in a relaxed and stimulating way.
Right now, with right-wing cuts in education across the board, classrooms have over 30 students all over the world. Very sad for both students and stressful for the teachers. Unsustainable by all standards.
Vote left, vote Obama.
No more right-wing creeps like Wert in Spain please. The other day Wert, the Spanish education minister said it was in the interest of Spain to castillianize Catalan schools. Untrue, if he did so, Catalans would become Spanish, and where would Spain get their plunderous fiscal imbalance from then?

J.L. A.
JL A.3 years ago

Images of Back to School Nights:
When my child was excited about something on display in the classroom (student work/projects) classroom atmosphere generally more positive--seeing what was being done beyond homework coming home reassures parents a lot, but not all subjects lend themselves equally to this (e.g., reams of math problems).
Schools with active parent groups (miss the PTAs of my youth--I think that model promoted better communication and helped avoid misunderstandings) had better parent turnout
Schools with schedules of which class when so parents of classmates together at the same time and teachers could provide overviews (downside was if 100% of the time went into teacher talking)
Student involvement in the night (fund raisers, classroom demonstrations, etc. sometimes clubs, other times opportunity for extra class credit)

Wim Zunnebeld
Wim Zunnebeld3 years ago