'Parents and teachers: together, we can move mountains'

As a new teacher, Emma Kell did everything to avoid speaking to parents. Today, she believes communication is vital – but it's equally important to get it right

parent-teacher meeting

For the first three years of my career, the parents of my students – and any contact with them – terrified me. Before any phone call, I’d go hot and shaky and, frankly, I put it off for as long as possible. 

As I started to earn my stripes, I realised that the vast majority of parents are fabulously supportive, and having them on side – and keeping lines of communication open – makes a huge difference to children’s wellbeing at school. 

Four years in, I started to endeavour to end my week with positive phone calls home to parents of young people who had impressed me with their learning or their attitudes or their kindnesses during the week. 

Through my recent exploits, I’ve had the chance to talk to lots and lots of parents. I’ve also, for the last 11 years, been a parent myself.

With my secondary school teacher hat on, I know that parental engagement can be a notorious nut to crack at secondary level. And I also know that many teachers probably feel as petrified by parental contact as I used to be. 

What parents really want

So I’ve been doing some thinking – as a parent and as a teacher, as myself and based on the experiences of others – about what parents really want. Here are some of my initial conclusions.

Data is massive in schools, and it has its importance. Results are, of course, hugely significant. I’ve yet to meet a parent who doesn’t realise this. But most of us aren’t that bothered by seeing the cross on the graph for our child for every individual subject. To be honest, it doesn’t mean an awful lot. I know you, hardworking teacher, have probably spent hours on it, but I really don’t particularly need to see your spreadsheet.

The last secondary school report I saw took me literally days to figure out – and the advice of at least two school data managers. Don’t make it too complicated, pretty please. (This might help with teachers’ workload, too.) 

Beyond average

I’m not sure who brought the word “average” into the language of UK schooling again, but it’s definitely reappeared, and I would urge its abolition. Children can be frustrating, funny, lazy and emotional, but I am yet to meet an “average” child in any sphere of life. Watch the other language too – save terms such as “below”, “insufficient” and “of concern” for when it really is a case of dramatic underperformance, not as an automatically generated term for when the numbers don’t quite add up.

Don’t just tell me my child is underachieving: tell me – exactly – what I can do to support them. Show me websites, show me their book, put tips and strategies on your website for parents to help with. It shouldn’t take long and, after all, we’re all on the same side.

Give me one line that shows you know my child, rather than 20 that have been generated by a computer – please! It will probably take you less time and it means far more to me.

On the same side

I know some of us are annoying and lose stuff and forget deadlines (guilty as charged), but don’t send out blanket and generic emails chastising us for not supporting the school. Drop me a scolding message, by all means, but I know the person next door has been On It from day one (or indeed 50 days prior to even beginning at the school), so don’t make them feel bad too. Abusive parents are awful (I know – I remember being told, in no uncertain terms, that my being female was the sum total of why someone’s son didn’t, and never would, learn from me), but the majority of parents are on the same side as the teachers.

If you’re worried about my child, for any reason – their behaviour, homework or their state of mind – a quick call means the world. 

Similarly, if I contact the school to express a concern about my child, please take it seriously. When our children are distressed or hurt or we fear they might be in danger, we do all go a bit feral. (Cue memories of giving a piece of my mind to a parent who made a show of taking a group of girls in party dresses to the ball park while my uninvited five-year-old trailed home in tears. Not dignified, but would I do it again? Hell, yes.) 

Give me your time, even if it’s just a few minutes. Speak to me face to face. By all means remind me that you have other tasks – and other children – and might take a couple of days to get back to me. But, I beg you, don’t ignore me. We want the same thing, yes?

What is that same thing that this handy catch-all teacher-parent “we” wants? More challenging as a question: is our current system equipped to provide it? I’ve written before about having no memory of my former students’ grades, and this is entirely true. Teachers don’t go into teaching for grades. Parents don’t give birth to future professors and doctors and company directors. A great friend summarised it beautifully once: we want our young people to be happy, healthy and kind. What more could we dream of? 

I still glow at the memory of the school report that referred to my second daughter’s sense of humour, sensitivity to others’ feelings and growing resilience in the face of the terrors of fractions. This teacher knew her and cared about her; this was clear from every word. I could have hugged the teacher who said my eldest looks out for the quieter and more vulnerable kids and that others look to her for guidance. I thank the pastoral support teacher who called to alert us to a rather inappropriate set of images making the rounds on WhatsApp.

My mantra, as a parent and a teacher, has grown (by learning the hard way) to be “good enough”. None of us gets it right all the time, but together we really can move mountains. Or change futures. Which is even better.

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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