5 keys to a successful virtual parent night: 2020 edition

How do you blend a time-honored tradition and an unprecedented moment of social, civil and personal upheaval? Carefully. Very carefully. So, in order to make lemonade from 2020’s truckload of lemons, currently broken down in the fast lane of our lives, let’s look at 5 keys to a successful virtual parent night.

1.Provide choice — for both educators and families

Model what you offer learners and provide choice for families.

Choice can look like different platforms, or different times.

Choice can look like some families not showing up to an event but reading all the handouts diligently and asking questions in your Slack channel. (Hey! Choice can look like a Slack channel instead of a Facebook group!) Not everyone is going to have the spoons right now to attend attentively, but as y’all are diligently using The Scott Thompson 17 Methods Of Family Communication bingo cards to stay in touch with everyone, we know you’ll catch up with those families another time.

virtual parent night

And what’s the best way to offer and act on those choices?

2. All hail the feedback loop

Ask ahead of time what your families need, act on the data, then close the loop with exit tickets.

It can in fact, be just that simple.

Methods on offer: Google Forms sent to family emails, paper forms sent with students or via US Mail.

Sample pre-survey questions could range from most convenient times to preferred video-conferencing (and non-video-conferencing) platforms. Questions on individual student progress, and questions on school policy. Much of this is exactly the same as the pre-surveying you’ve been doing with more traditional parent nights.

And then after parent night, sending out a survey can not just tell you how well you pulled it off, it can also tell you what additional topics families wish you’d covered, or where there’s still some confusion.

Best of all, it’s a way to invite families to continue the parent night conversation with you. Everybody loves being asked for their opinion!

3. Prep as much as you can in advance

Time flies when you’re having trouble finding the “mute” button.

A one-hour virtual parent night will whip by. Time will do wild loop-de-loops; you will struggle to fit everyone’s questions in. Y’all know this. So, take the opportunity to prep as much of the information you want to give families in advance. It will give them time to pre-read, if they’re pre-readers. It will give the people who can’t make it access to the information as well, and it will save your together time as a community for genuine interactions.

Here is a fabulous example from Newark School, in West Burke VT:

virtual parent night

Look at all the information in Newark’s agenda! Links to tutorials and parents guides, schedules and remote plans, and — be still our beating hearts — a Code of Conduct.

(That’s not a joke; Codes of Conduct are incredibly helpful documents, never more so than as we all began spending so much of our lives shouting at each other through lighted, moving panes of glass.)

So in addition to providing this information to families for pre-digest, the document also lives on as an amazing quicklinks resource, after the event! We’d copy that agenda to our Drives in a heartbeat.

Now, we know what you’re thinking: that looks like a *ton* of work, and it is. So. Who do you know who might be interested in writing or recording some tutorials, or tech guides for families?

We’ll give you a moment there…

….rhymes with “shmudents”…

That’s right: students.

Bear with us but: what might it look like to ask your students to write up a Zoom Code of Conduct for their family community?

4. Make it accessible

Embrace accessibility. As we are now all highly dependent on these beautiful beautiful screens for a further couple of months, we’re all becoming much more aware of the accessibility needs related to technology. If you’re going to have a spoken presentation, find out your options for including an ASL interpreter or even getting real-time, CART captioning services.

Include in your pre-event survey any needs for translators. Translation services exist in your community and online both.

Other aspects of accessibility may be less obvious.

But for instance, avoid scheduling your virtual parent night on a high holy day (there are a bunch coming up). Yes, we’re talking about Hannukkah. But we’re also talking about Diwali, Solstice, and Veer Samvat.

Consider re-labeling your virtual parent night as “virtual family night”, as not all students live with their parents. Families take many forms.

Another aspect of accessibility involves choosing the method of virtual delivery for parent night. Platforms or tools that require very modern software or hardware, or lots of bandwidth can unintentionally exclude families who don’t have access to all those things. Offer a phone line option, and record your presentations or conversations for sharing with families who aren’t in attendance (standard consent rules apply for digital recording.)

Phew! That all sounds like a lot, right?

It is, and it’s worth it to make sure all your students and their families feel welcome and can actually access your well-planned and successful virtual parent night.

And again we ask: do you have any students who might be interested in helping plan virtual parent night? Any students passionate about community activism, or disability rights, who might love to research these topics and their implementations?

Sure you do!

And as a bonus, they’d love to get school credit for it. Go off. Turn it into a whole unit, tying to history and public policy, and funding-based math and school boards.

Proficiencies? Transferable skills? WHY NOT BOTH, Y’ALL. Why. Not. Both.

5. Most of all, make it manageable.

Your virtual parent night is going to be amazing. So whatever else you do, y’all, make it work for you and your team or staff. Parent nights are about families, but they’re also about you.

Look, everyone in a classroom, near a classroom, or managing a classroom is about on the ragged edge of having had the smooth rock enough already. Everything’s on fire, everything hurts.

The solitary fact of you pulling off a virtual parent night — whatever that looks like? Is enough.

Hats off to you. You’re doing a great job.

Audrey Homan

Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and producer of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time writes tiny video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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