Home-school partnerships will only work when the parent, pupil and teacher know and trust each other. As the professional partner, you are very much in charge of this relationship. So:
* make sure you stay well informed. Keep a "pastoral file" for your tutor group, with names and contact details. Names are really important - you cannot assume that the child, father and mother will share the same surname, and using the child's surname to greet them could set you off on the wrong foot
* make sure you are well briefed about any home-school agreement - then you will be clear about your expectations of parents, and theirs of you
* keep up with pupils' progress, achievements and targets
* be aware that until they have met you the only impression parents have of you will be based on what a pupil has told them. You may need to put a few things straight on your first meeting - remember that professionalism is your best weapon
* bear in mind that you are the expert on academic issues, but the parent knows the child rather better than you do. So listen to parents, and learn from them.
GET READY WELL IN ADVANCE
Be prepared. Before you meet a parent, whatever the context, you need to know:
* why you are having the meeting. Is it to give a progress report, as happens at a parents' evening, or is it to sort out a specific problem that either you, the parents or the child have identified?
* what you can do to help. There's no point in making promises you can't keep, or in trying to deal with a problem that is properly the responsibility of the head of year or a subject teacher
* what specific action you can offer. You cannot commit other teachers to doing something without consulting them, but you can offer to present a case. Give the parents a timescale for your response and promise to keep them informed.
Also make sure you have:
* sound information. If the problem is about uniform, homework, or anything else for which there is a school policy, you should have a firm grasp of what that policy contains. You should also keep a copy of it with you in the meeting.
* a current overview of the pupil's progress and achievements. That's easy enough if you can refer to a recent set of reports or a half-termly review, but at some times of the year you may have to send a note to colleagues to gather information. If so, make it specific - "How's Lucy doing?" won't produce the useful detail that a focused enquiry such as "Has Lucy produced good homework over the past three weeks?" will give you.
GIVE IT TO THEM STRAIGHT?
Parents sometimes have strange ideas about what you should be teaching - often based on their own experience of school. For example, you might be asked why you are not teaching the names of capes and bays, or about the suitability of a Year 8 course as preparation for an Oxbridge degree in economic geography. Whatever the question, contextualise your answer in terms of the following:
* the stage of study, and the relevant national curriculum or exam board requirements; and
* your scheme of work.
Have appropriate documents to hand. You don't have time to philosophise, so simply offer a brief outline of the course.
All parents will ask you how the child in question is getting on, so be ready with your answer. Refer to records and suggest study skills, extension sources and guides. Agree targets and make sure that everyone involved understands them. And set a timescale for review - unreviewed targets are pointless.
Parents and pupils can become anxious at critical times - before Sats or exams, or at other junctures such as secondary transfer, or when subject choices must be made in Year 9 and Year 11. But they will worry less if they are well informed, so have accessible details on hand. GCSE specifications won't mean much to a parent. More useful will be your version of what it means in terms of the independent work, revision and new skills required.
WHAT'S EXPECTED OF YOU
You are a professional, and parents have expectations. They expect:
* some effort over your appearance. Parents often have a conservative view of what a professional should look like, though they may give some latitude to your youth
* confidence, enthusiasm and knowledge of their child
* a sound knowledge of your subject and evidence that you are enthusiastic about passing on that knowledge
* an ability to listen. Teachers love to talk, but those who listen are the most effective
* to feel that they are dealing with a team player. Say "we" more than you say "..."
* fairness. Show this by keeping to your schedule at a parents' evening. If you run out of time, offer another slot to follow up. You can also show you are fair by not offering opinions until you've heard all the evidence
* to see you taking things seriously. Take notes, and be seen to do so
* a respectful greeting. Stand up and offer to shake hands.
Never compare one child's performance with another's, especially in the case of siblings. If children are part of a meeting, give them the same respect as you give parents. Start the meeting by asking the child why the meeting is taking place, or to describe the problem. Involving the child will make it clear that his or her learning is the central concern.
Most difficult situations with parents can be avoided. Some can be aggressive, even violent. But if they've taken the trouble to see you, they are at least interested. Most problems come from misunderstanding, misinformation or lack of communication.
Ask colleagues whether they know of parents who are likely to be difficult, and take their advice. If you think there might be a problem, arrange for a colleague - a departmental head or a head of year - to join you in the meeting.
Don't put things off. If you see that there is a problem with a pupil and you have a parents' evening the next day, raise the matter. If it's more than a few days away, let the parent know your concerns straight away. The worst thing a parent can say is, "Why weren't we told?"
Pupils who think there might be trouble will try to present their problems in the best possible light, and may be economical with the truth. And parents tend to believe their children. The pre-emptive strike is best - make sure, preferably by writing to them, that parents have the full facts before you meet.
Parents may make confidential remarks to you. If you see the slightest sign that it is about to happen, especially if it relates to a child protection issue, you must say that you might have to pass on the details.
Separated parents almost certainly have equal rights to be informed about their child's education. Never take sides, and don't let one play you off against the other. Take advice from the head of year.