At parents’ evening, it’s often all about the rhythm. There’s the ticking of the clock on the wall in the now-chilly classrooms or in the glare of the hall lights. There’s the filing in and out at 10-minute intervals, as parents and families huddle, bundled in coats, on too-small chairs, or pore over exercise books filled with often indecipherable and unfamiliar learning.
A silent and invisible pendulum of nerves swings backwards and forwards between parents and teachers. Neither really knows how this is going to go, regardless of how positive or longstanding the relationship. There are coathanger smiles and then a gentle letting down of shoulders on both sides of the table, a sign of relief as initial conversations and pleasantries indicate that it is all going to be fine after all.
It is a strange relationship and an odd dynamic. But to attend parents’ evening as a teacher yourself is even more odd. To know as a parent that your child is entrusted to this qualified professional, yet relative stranger, for the majority of their waking hours during the working week. To think that there is a whole world that exists for your child about which you know so little, but which means so much.
No regurgitated scores
Classroom photographs, scrapbooks and displays show that there is pretty far from the daily reported “nothing” going on during the school day. Smiling group shots, carefully crafted models, joyful feedback comments and stickers adorning great work narrate the tune and score of your child’s day.
And, as you sit there opposite the dedicated and knowledgeable professional, you find yourself not wanting to have scores regurgitated or targets discussed. You want to speak about the things that are rarely the currency of schools or the conversations we usually have as teachers at parents’ evenings.
I find myself wanting to know if my children are kind, honest, helpful, confident and a friend to everyone. Do they persevere, volunteer and enjoy their time in class? Do they stand alone at playtime, or are they surrounded by friends and laughter? Do they offer to help those who are struggling? Do they ensure that no one is left out, that everyone feels part of something? Do they laugh, do they ask questions and do they offer to represent their school and their community?
Lost in joy
I pore over their workbooks, left out in their scuffed trays, as I have done in headship with thousands of books. But I am not looking for curriculum coverage or evidence of effective feedback. I am looking for the moments when my child has clearly been lost in the joy of what they’re doing. I look for imagination and creativity.
I look to their teachers for their real knowledge of my child. Do they know their quirks and their foibles, or merely their performance and their scores?
It came as a complete and unsettling shock to me to find on my first-ever parents’ evening on the other side of the table, as I sat with my daughter’s early years team, that the language I had used over two decades of teaching was not the one I wanted to speak regarding my own child. I didn’t want to use the educational lingo of my day-to-day world of work to describe the little girl who was the centre of my world at home.
Yes, we have a duty to report to parents and, yes, we should ensure that parents know how to best support their child in their learning. But it was a reminder that home and school should be a harmonious and melodic duet, not a monotonous ticking metronome of targets and impenetrable metalanguage.
Knowing that they care
I’ve often commented on how, since becoming a parent of three and therefore consumer of the education system, my views have shifted. Not a major chord change or completely different key, but a shift in tempo nevertheless. I am not so much interested now in the impressive orchestral performances of overall school effectiveness, but am more interested in the effect of each individual’s contribution. The detail and the gentle playing of each educator’s part, to ensure that each child’s tune and voice is heard is now much more my focus.
And I am very lucky. My children’s school is full of those kinds of educators who know each child so well and who care deeply not only about ensuring great progress and a high-quality curriculum but also about the small things that are actually the big things to my children and the children of all the other families in the school community.
And that’s often what families really want: in that chilly hall or strangely lit evening classroom, where the teacher is exhausted from the third night of appointments and the thought of impending break duty in the morning, many parents just want to know that you know them. That you understand their child, and that you care.
Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Academy Trust in Leicestershire. She tweets @Emma_Turner75