Every August for the past three years, I have put on sturdy shoes, taken a breath and accompanied my twins to the meet-and-greet held at their middle school the day before school resumes.
With close to a thousand people flooding the school for an hour on a hot, sticky summer day, it is more melee than meet-and-greet. I always spy a few rising sixth graders holding back tears or shrinking against the wall as they confront hundreds of preteens dashing through the halls looking for classmates and classrooms.
Our middle school is growing and now has nearly 800 students. Many students attend the meet-and-greets with parents and younger siblings in tow. This year may have been the worst crush of squealing, swarming and sweating students. The corridor was so aromatic that rather than glue sticks, the school supply list should mandate Speed Sticks.
With so many people and so little time, the event became a meet-and-nod, a quick exchange of “hellos” with teachers surrounded by parents and children waiting to make introductions. There has to be a better way to kick off the new year. A new neighbor, herself an educator, said her upcoming sixth grader — a shy girl already nervous about the transition to a large middle school — returned home, retreated to her bedroom and wept.
As a longtime public school parent, I wish districts gave more consideration to first impressions, community relations and the entire process of inaugurating a new year.
For instance, a simple solution to meet-and-greet anxieties is to hold a separate session for each grade or at least for the youngest classes.
A friend in north Fulton told me that her middle school holds three consecutive open houses, each an hour long and each limited to a single grade.
Better communications would be helpful. I remain surprised at the under-utilization of email to disseminate information about the new school year, new staff and new procedures.
School districts once maintained that not all families could be reached via email, but now nearly 80 percent of Americans have Internet access.
Many systems wait to the last minute to notify students about their classroom assignments. The usual explanation is that rosters are not finalized until days before school resumes, yet some systems tell parents early in the summer.
(A friend who teaches at one of Atlanta’s most prestigious private academies told me that the school also delays to the bitter end, in part to deflect parent requests for class switches. I suspect that is part of the public school motivation as well.)
Parents grow nervous when they discover their child is assigned to a new teacher. When they scour school websites, often bios aren’t posted yet for the new teachers or the information is sketchy. Schools could allay a lot of fretting if they sent out email biographies of all their teachers.
And those bios should “sell” the teachers, the same way that real estate companies tout their newest agents. (“She’s in the Million Dollar Sales Club.” “Nobody knows Vinings better.”) Tell parents about the teachers’ education, experience and philosophies. Let teachers pen their own bios. Include their photos and email addresses.
Teachers themselves should assemble email lists of the parents in their classes and send out welcome notes. A smart teacher I once interviewed dispatches a standard note — with some variations — to parents after the first month or so of school, saying how much she is enjoying their child in class. She says the effort takes her about 30 minutes but buys immeasurable good will.
Principals complain about informal parent grapevines spreading disinformation, but it’s often because schools leave out critical details.
For example, if a school is holding girls volleyball tryouts this week, it’s helpful to include a reality check, along with the time and place, in the announcement. Tell parents upfront that the team is limited to 14 players, so it will be unlikely than an inexperienced candidate will earn a jersey if 50 girls try out.
A deep well of ill feelings can develop when parents don’t understand that not every aspirant will win a spot on a team or in a school play. I know parents still nursing grudges because their child was summarily rejected from the freshmen soccer team or the high school production of “Our Town.”
Finally, a simple note from the principal — “Don’t be afraid to ask me anything” — can go a long way to making parent and kids feel welcome and acknowledged.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog