Ah, parents’ evening! Or is it “parents evening”? We don’t have the time for that now: you’ve got one coming up soon.
Yes, a few schools have abandoned them completely. Others squeeze them in during a day when teachers are off timetable. And there may well be plenty of research saying that other mediums of conversing with parents are better. But the majority of us still add to our time budget with this much-maligned but virtually universal feature of the school calendar, when parents, guardians and carers troop around the school looking slightly dazed.
You were probably given some vague advice about what to do and say during your training, but for many of us, that was quite some time ago.
The modern teacher and modern parent are much-changed beasts. As such, I’m dubious as to how useful traditional parents’ evening guides now are. The education system is more opaque, the demands on teachers’ time more acute and the students perhaps a little more emboldened to hang you out to dry publicly.
So here’s my view on how you can escape at the end of the evening with your health, sanity and reputation intact.
1. Eat and drink
The voice is a delicate instrument and the modern teacher is working that instrument nearly every minute of the day. After a five-period day and 27 consecutive appointments, it’s likely to sound less like Beyoncé and more like Tom Waits. Drink plenty of liquids, but do remember to nip to the toilet. It’s hard to concentrate with a bursting bladder. Eat something decent beforehand, too. A grab-bag of salt and vinegar crisps is unlikely to see you through till the end. Fainting in the middle of an appointment tends to mess up your schedule.
2. Be your own PA
At parents’ evening, you’ll need to be organised – part teacher, part doctor’s receptionist. A guaranteed way of creating a hostile crowd is not having a clue who’s next in line. Have a prominently displayed appointment schedule. Deal with queue jumpers with polite firmness: “I’m sorry, Mrs X, I’m afraid Mr Y is booked in before you. I’ll get to you as soon as I can. Please put down the staple gun.” Having said that, if you get the chance to squeeze in a later appointment while waiting for a parent who’s been delayed, grasp it like the last custard cream on the plate. Getting ahead is often the only way to get out on time.
3. Stand to attention
Despite your inevitable weariness, you should always try to stand up to greet parents. It’s a sign of respect to welcome them formally, but it also has the practical benefit of helping you to avoid backache. Be careful before diving in for a handshake: some parents are much more comfortable than others about pressing flesh. Cultural differences may also require different approaches. To avoid awkwardness, my advice is to wait and pick up on visual cues before diving in with a proffered hand.
4. Do your homework
It’s important to show parents that you know the pupil as an individual, and have a solid understanding of their behaviour and academic strengths and weaknesses. Generic comments may have worked 15 years ago, but these days they are guaranteed to irritate. This is harder for teachers of key stage 3 subjects, such as drama and music, who often end up teaching the whole year, as opposed to primary teachers or teachers of core secondary subjects. Either way, check your facts. If you say the pupil never does their homework and the parent can point to three occasions when they did so, you’ll lose credibility quickly. For this reason…
5. Use data but know its limitations
We have so much data on students now that the temptation may be to plot a particular student’s performance on several graphs and hand them over, smiling. Supporting your forecast grade with an array of assessment scores will naturally sound more authoritative than vague opinions about being “able to meet expected standard if he pulls his socks up this year”. However, we all know that data can be misleading; if a student has grafted all year but hasn’t yet reached their full potential, reassure the parents that it is only a matter of time before things click.
6. Know your audience
Experience has taught me that different parents want different things at parents’ evenings. Some are interested mainly in hearing that their offspring are working hard and aren’t giving the teacher any lip. Others want a forensic explanation of the specification and a recommended reading list longer than a Dickens novel. Beware of your preconceptions. Parents are often very different to what you imagine and, in recent times, many have become much more knowledgeable than you would expect about the curriculum and education in general.
7. Use plain English
We are so awash with acronyms in the modern school that we can too easily fall into being incomprehensible. Stick to straightforward language wherever possible. Avoid jargon if you can or explain it in simple terms if you can’t. Unless you discover that the parent is au fait with the ins and outs of assessment criteria, relate to the child’s progress using clear, accessible words. The alternative is having parents complaining that a particular teacher “talks like a textbook”, which isn’t a compliment.
8. Be honest. Be positive
I made some very naïve mistakes at my first few parents’ evenings. By far the worst was thinking that downplaying the poor behaviour or effort of some pupils would endear them to me, resulting in an improvement in future lessons. Instead, the pupil realised they’d been handed a reprieve, leading to a further loss of respect for my authority. So when it needs to be said, politely but unflinchingly lay your cards on the table. But make sure you don’t include a get-out-of-jail-free card.
9. Involve the pupil in difficult talks
Students are much more involved in assessing their own performance in schools today. So when the pupil comes along to the parents’ evening, try getting them to go first: “What do you think I’m going to say about your effort so far this year, Shehnaaz?” They might well be honest about their tendency to distract others and leave work unfinished, making your job of illustrating the issues to parents easier. Alternatively, try this at the end of your spiel. “Is any of that unfair, Jacob? What do you think you could do to improve?”
10. Discuss next steps
You might want to give parents a list of key exam dates to take away or a list of priority digraphs to practise. Don’t overburden parents with reams of paper, though – just focus on the most important things that their child needs to work on for now.
Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the South West of England