Long day's journey into parents' night

I remember worrying about my first Appointments Evening and can understand that you, too, may be apprehensive. So here are some thoughts to be getting on with, bearing in mind that their frequency and how they are managed will vary considerably from school to school.

Daunting as the prospect may be of meeting a long list of people after a full day's teaching, the experience should be constructive and beneficial, not a ritual merry-go-round.

It is not a one-sided matter either, so it is important as a professional to be a good listener as well as a good communicator. Don't underestimate the art of listening. It may be something which you need to practise.

Although I would discourage a "them and us" attitude imagine the situation as being like a sturdy footbridge, the wider the better, where you and the parents meet co-operatively with the child as the clear focus of your attention. It is not a hump-backed one where you are both impatient drivers, hooting blindly while hoping for the best.

Preparation is important. An appointment which is poorly prepared may end with a casualty.

Meetings are necessarily short, maybe only 15 minutes, so time spent on irrelevant conversation is wasted.

Think in advance about what you want to say, as some of the parents will have done, and keep to the point. It may be necessary to report serious worries covering several months, but don't be surprised if you are asked, justifiably if not indignantly, why they were not mentioned earlier.

Always find something good to say and try to end on an up-beat. If you need further advice or a longer interview suggest another day. Unfortunately it sometimes happens that the parents you most need to see are unavailable, in which case talk to your headteacher about it. Try to be realistic about keeping on time. It is almost inevitable that you will overrun, but if you build some slack into your system by arranging gaps you will spare waiting parents irritation and avoid disrupting the timetables of staff who teach siblings.

Privacy is preferable but not always possible. Parents may have to wait inside the classroom if there isn't a waiting area outside. Think how you will manage this. Your should also try to give yourself a break. If you don't live nearby bring some refreshment with you.

Be aware of your body language. Does the way you are dressed convey that you think it is an important occasion?

Consider, too, where you will sit. Will it be behind your desk or will you take the parents to their child's table and sit alongside them? Be sure to put them at their ease. Be welcoming, make eye contact and thank them for coming. Then be honest and positive in your assessment. Don't flannel and don't, for the sake of an easy life, say everything is well when it blatantly isn't. Parents won't thank you for this in the long run and you will only store up problems for yourself and future teachers.

Never encourage direct or implied criticism of colleagues and don't discuss other parents' children. Use clear language, not esoteric education-speak. Show that you know the child, perhaps by giving examples of something he or she has done recently.

Remember that parents are entitled to see their child's official records, but check on your school's policy for this: sometimes advance notice is required. Remember, too, that the interview is a dialogue, so keep it balanced and make relevant notes about what you are told.

Equal opportunity for single parents will also have to be considered. Sometimes a couple who have split up will have agreed to meet you together. More often, sadly, you will at best meet them separately.

In the unlikely event that you are faced with aggression be polite, keep calm, bite your lip and stay in control. Partnership is the key and confrontation must not be allowed to develop.

Sometimes, as a headteacher, I have to tell parents things which they don't like to hear, and there may be tension, but once the awkward moment is past we agree that their child is our main concern.

Lastly, it will be a long day, but in general you will be pleasantly surprised, if weary, how well it transpires. Your impressions will probably be confirmed later in the staffroom.

Most parents come in order to be reassured about their child's progress. Empathise with them and if in meeting each other you gain mutual confidence everyone will benefit.

Luke Darlington Luke Darlington is headteacher of St Mary's CE Primary School, Yate, Bristol

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