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The issue - Let's meet the parents

Keep parents' evening from turning into a horror show by focusing on the purpose of the meeting and following these fail-safe tips

Keep parents' evening from turning into a horror show by focusing on the purpose of the meeting and following these fail-safe tips

Some are there grudgingly. Others are relishing every moment. In some cases, you're not sure they even know where they are. But they are present, usually - every student's parent or guardian in one room. And, one after another, they come and sit at your table, fold their arms and wait for you to pass judgement on their pride and joy.

We're talking, of course, about the secondary school parents' evening; the date in the diary that every teacher at once dreads and eagerly anticipates. On one hand, the event is a chance to praise or take revenge on students who make or break your lessons; to bask in your own skill as a teacher or to ensure that skill can shine in future. On the other hand, parents' evening is a massive box of fireworks placed too close to the naked flame of parent unpredictability. One false move can trigger an explosion.

Trying to prepare for every eventuality is impossible. Yet there are things you can do to give yourself the best chance of a hassle-free, successful evening. As a long-suffering veteran of such events, here are my top tips.

Remember children's names

It sounds simple, but before doing anything else make sure that you know and can remember the names of all your students. Having to ask who the child is, or worse still mistaking them for someone else, renders the next 10 minutes largely pointless: the parents are not listening because they think you are hopeless, and they are rehearsing the best way of relaying this opinion to the senior leadership team as soon as you stop babbling your apology.

With the number of students that teachers see nowadays, forgetting a name is all too easy. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to minimise the risk of drawing a blank when Average Child X steps forward with mum and dad. If students will not be accompanying their parents, arrange your appointments so that you have a small window between each to acquaint yourself with the next child's name and CV. If students will be attending with their parents, have pictures to go with your list of names so that you can identify them at a distance.

Hit the right tone

I remember as a young teacher watching the film Fever Pitch. In an early scene, the old-hand teacher Colin Firth is happily chatting away at parents' evening about the form of his beloved Arsenal Football Club, cracking jokes with parents and children alike, winning hearts and minds but dispensing little in the way of useful information. Next to him is the inexperienced newly qualified teacher, talking meticulously but coldly about sub-levels of progress to parents with glazed expressions on their faces. I think that a tone in between the two is probably about right. You should come across as friendly and approachable, but at the end of the day the point of the meeting is for you and the parents to have a practical discussion about how their child is doing.

Get parents onside

Remember that many adults in the UK feel badly let down by the education system, and as a result don't feel that kindly towards schools. You should be warm and welcoming from the beginning of your conversation, and choose language that suggests partnership between you and the parents in dealing with any issues.

Know what you want to say

Have a really clear idea of the specific message you want to get across about each student. A simple list for each child may help. You should also allow a couple of minutes for parents to ask questions at the beginning or end.

Prepare your facts

Having the facts at your fingertips is crucial, especially if you need to address a particular problem. Talking in generic terms about poor assessment marks or failures to hand in homework is always fatal. Have dates, times and incidents listed in front of you. Planning for parents' evening begins when the school year begins: you can't magic such facts and figures out of the ether.

Tackle issues head-on

When there is a problem, you need to say so. This is not about gathering your bile and vitriol and pouring forth to a parent in revenge for the hassle their offspring has caused you over the course of the year. Nor is it a good idea to underplay things to avoid confrontation. Be clear about the problem and its extent, using your facts to support your message. Remember that a child who is a complete pain in one subject is often likely to be underperforming in others, too - a complete bombardment at every desk isn't much fun for the hapless parent, and isn't necessarily productive. So tell the truth, but don't over-egg the pudding.

End the meeting well

Finishing any discussion with a clear strategy is vital: what is the plan of action? Involve the parent in the discussion. It is really important to remember that almost all parents want the very best for their children and are really keen to work with you to achieve this.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, England.

What else?

Try a guide to parents' evening for first-timers.

26 ways to survive the big night.

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