What can you ask to get the most of our back-to-school night? (Associated Press)

With all of the chaos of the first few weeks of school, back-to-school night may seem like one more appointment that you have to squeeze in between soccer practice and homework.

The annual ritual is more than just a recruiting opportunity for the PTO or Girl Scouts, though. It’s a chance to find out what is really going on in your child’s classroom—beyond the daily schedule and homework procedures—and what kind of teacher you’re working with for the next nine months, said Carol Lloyd, the executive editor at GreatSchools, an online directory that rates and provides information on schools across the country.

“Some teachers can have anxiety [that evening], and that leads them to create a presentation that glosses over the surface and covers logistics: the schedule, planned field trips, how to be a room parent,” Lloyd said. “They don’t talk about the learning, their teaching philosophy, what they care about. Most teachers have these things, but they don’t talk about it. They focus on logistics and the parents walk away saying ‘Well, that’s what the teacher cares about.'”

If you go in armed with the right questions, Lloyd said, you can find out what is most important to your child’s teachers and what values they are trying to impart. Don’t treat the evening like a parent/teacher conference. It’s not the time to ask very specific questions about your own child. But odds are other parents in the class have some of the same concerns you do, so ask broad questions. That way, the teacher is addressing your needs, and you’re not hogging the stage to find out why your child doesn’t have enough time to finish her lunch.

Lloyd shared five questions that can get teachers to open up, and get you the information you really need.

What is your perspective on homework? “The answer can tell you a lot about a teacher,” Lloyd said. “Are they a back-to-basics teacher or do they feel forced to give homework, or do they only believe in giving it a certain way, so it’s not just busywork?”

How do you feel about the Common Core (or other state-mandated) standards? Do you feel prepared for them? Ask if they have had to implement a new curriculum to meet the latest standards, if they feel supported in the school, if they have been trained on the standards. Also ask if they support the standards or feel constrained by them, Lloyd said, or if they feel like it’s affecting their ability to teach children well.

What is your plan for different types of learners? This question, Lloyd said, can serve two purposes: Finding out how a teacher adjusts for different learning styles, and subtly suggesting that your child might need something a little different to be successful.

“If your child has special needs or a challenge, or if your kid is always a little rocket scientist in the making and needs extra challenges, you’re getting that on the teacher’s radar,” Lloyd said. “You’re planting a seed that you expect the teacher to not have all of the kids in the same box.”

How can we help you? If no one else has brought it up, make sure to ask what the teacher needs or expects from parents. The answer, whether it’s just read with your child every night or come in and run copies once a week, will tell you how much involvement a teacher wants (and whether it’s at home or school). But more importantly, asking the question will let the teacher know that you support her.

“So many teachers feel stressed out and under-supported, especially in public schools,” Lloyd said. “If they feel like parents are on their side, it immediately changes the dynamic and then you can ask for more for your child.”

What is your role if a child is having trouble socially? Some teachers see the social dynamics in the classroom as not their responsibility, Lloyd said, while others take it on as a huge part of their job and it gets in the way of teaching academics.

“You want the teachers to respond that they are aware of it and care about it and see growing a strong community as part of their work,” Lloyd said. “But not a teacher who says they do 20 minutes of problem-solving every day after recess to resolve playground conflicts. That’s a signal that the teacher doesn’t have very good classroom management skills and can get distracted by kids’ drama.”

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