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Glad to meet the family

Luke Darlington writes an open letter to new teachers beginning a partnership with parents as well as their children

Dear colleague, as you begin your first term it's possible one of your very many concerns will be how you'll get on with parents. My own observations over four decades would fill a book, but here are a few pointers.

During my first few weeks one of the staff showed me a letter in which a mum complained her daughter had been sent out to play in the cold. "It's all right for you," she wrote, "standing there raped in your fur coat."

It was then I appreciated what riches lay before me. But the letter emphasised the difference between parents and teachers and I had little idea how strong the partnership between us would eventually become.

Things have changed since the days when parents weren't encouraged inside schools except by rare invitation. We saw very little of them. There were even notices stating "parents stop here", implying they were a nuisance.

Some still are, but there's ample compensation provided by the many who have become a regular part of the daily scene, helping in the classrooms and elsewhere with a huge range of invaluable time-saving skills, not to mention their hard work fund-raising, bringing resources and quality to education which would otherwise be unattainable.

Winning the confidence of parents may worry you. After all, unless you have children of your own they will probably know a lot more about practical child psychology than you do. But they'll respond positively to someone who obviously cares about their children, who works hard, has good classroom discipline and who shows a professional attitude.

It pays to get to know them early on, without being over-familiar, but don't assume that because you've been trained you'll automatically receive respect. That'll have to be earned.

There may be those in the staffroom who scarcely tolerate parents, who feel with some justification that the partnership has gone too far, that it's the thin end of a wedge.

It's true that some parents do overstep the mark, take advantage, pry, interfere and even make mischief. But they're a tiny minority. Others are a pain because they simply don't know any better.

So beware of a "them and us" attitude. See the whole picture in perspective before making up your mind.

You will hardly ever see some parents and you'll see far too much of others. They will request the most inconvenient moments to "talk to you for a minute", such as when you're trying to settle the class down. They'll have a bee in their bonnet they've harboured for weeks and will want an instant answer.

Don't be put on the spot. Make an appointment, and when you do discuss the matter be open-minded. Allow time for a considered response. If you're unsure, then do seek advice from a senior teacher.

Gate-talk can be troublesome. As a head, I try to counter rumour by encouraging parents to voice their worries early on. An open-door policy, managed by mutual arrangement, sorts out minor confusions before they become major ones, reduces misunderstanding and encourages trust.

You may wish to distance yourself from parents for a while as you find your feet, but a friendly acknowledgement as you see them does no harm. You're no different from the headteacher in this respect. There's only one of you and your reactions, even the expressions on your face, may be noticed and commented on. Try to appear cheerful.

Sooner or later you'll meet the problem of personal privacy. Teachers who live near their school are sometimes quizzed about school business in the street or supermarket. They may even be approached at home.

Think whether you need this and how you'll deal with it. Some teachers thrive in the pastoral role, especially if they live in village communities. On the other hand you may decide to go ex-directory and live far enough away for people to know only vaguely where you live.

It's been said that we won't know how successful we've been as teachers until we see our children's children. We are educating most of our pupils for parenthood, and you may occasionally meet them as adults.

You'll certainly come across a kaleidoscope of parental personalities during your career. Most will be kind, reasonable, friendly, inoffensive and approachable. Some will be the salt of the earth, a solid core always ready to help. It's just a disproportionate few who'll be the talk of the staffroom for their nuisance value. But whichever parents you do encounter, although you'll never cease being amazed by the things they say and do, respect them and don't forget you wouldn't have a job without them. Some may become lifelong friends.

One last thing. Parents never get older. Only you do. Good luck.

Luke Darlington is headteacher of St Mary's C of E primary, Yate, Bristol

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