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How to survive parents' night;Management

Laura Peters has some words of advice for new teachers

Even the most experienced teacher heaves a sigh of relief when the last one leaves at the end of parents' night. Talking to parents continuously for hours is exhausting after a working day at school. Uncertainty pervades teachers' minds. How will parents respond to direct feedback on their child's academic progress, attitude to learning or general behaviour?

Furthermore, parental partnership has led to greater active involvement, and teachers are now only too aware that it is not just parents who are being interviewed. School and teaching staff are under scrutiny too.

In my experience as a primary teacher, one drawback today is having to report to parents on the entire ever expanding curriculum. This inevitably leads to using the same general terms repeatedly.

Secondary teachers, by contrast, have the luxury of talking exclusively on their subject area. But they may see any one pupil for a short period two or three times a week, and so they lack the primary teacher's in-depth knowledge of the pupils' personalities.

Like parents, teachers have different characteristics and styles of behaviour. What is obvious to one teacher, another may never have thought of. So the following rules of thumb may be helpful. They come from the primary sector, but several aspects are relevant to secondary schools: First, create a welcoming ethos for parents. Directions and classroom numbers should be clearly marked. Pupil helpers can be allocated to welcome people, help lost parents, play with siblings or demonstrate the school's ICT resources.

Display photos of school activities and achievements in a public area - and remember to update staff photos.

Be careful with your body language. Don't power dress. This can be a barrier to communicating with parents from poorer areas.

Choose something to wear that is comfortable and presentable. And greet each parent with a smile. Appear genuinely pleased to meet every parent. Look to support in cultivating your smile from your headteacher. It can be argued that headteachers have been working on this skill for years.

Always look at the parent you're talking to. If both parents attend, make sure you address both equally.

Show that you are seriously considering the parent's requests and comments. Curl your eyebrows inquisitively, nod your head approvingly - and pause for thought before responding.

Parent communication matters too. Start before the interview, and be forewarned about any difficult parents you may have. Ascertain from a member of the school management team what school procedures to take with such parents.

And check that you have correctly matched the parent to the pupil before you begin the interview. Primary teachers should realise that some pupils can have an uncanny resemblance to parents other than their own! And remember - primary parents frequently do not introduce themselves, but expect the teachers to know instinctively who they are.

Ensure that the necessary papers are at your side. But do not let parents see results, grades or papers of other pupils' work.

During the interview show that you are responding positively to any requests by writing a note of what the parent is saying.

Avoid, at all costs, comparisons of pupil siblings. This may prompt parents into drawing similar comparisons with teachers.

By the same token, secondary teachers should be sensitive to the fact that pupils are likely to prefer certain subjects, and perform or behave less well in others. Faces with the parent of a poor performer, avoid the comment "I expect he's like that in other classes" - unless you have consulted your colleagues and know it to be true. If this pupil behaves differently in other classes, it makes you look stupid.

If criticism comes at you, listen carefully to the parent's point of view. Be level headed and do not enter into an argument at this point, unless there is an urgent reason to confront the parent.

Also, don't do all the talking yourself. Allow parents the opportunity to ask the questions about their child's progress that concern them.

But you should make every effort to keep to the schedule and not have parents waiting too long. One strategy for terminating an interview is to look at your folder or record book, carefully close it, and then stand up to signal dismissal. If this is unsuccessful, then politely excuse yourself and walk to the door with the parent, while inviting the next parent in.

If a parent has a legitimate cause for concern and is taking up more time than allocated, suggest that they make another appointment. Similarly, teachers should not use parents' night to discuss a specific matter. This too should be left to another occasion.

And apologise to any parent kept waiting more than 10 minutes past their appointment.

At the end, make time to return the classroom to its familiar state, ready to welcome pupils the following morning. Finally, sit down and make a note of the parents who were given a late appointment, so that they are offered an earlier one next time. Earlier appointments tend to have more alert, fresher teachers.

Then it's over for this time.

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