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Sins of the fathers

.. and some of the mothers are not that easy to handle either. But painstaking preparation and a few basic rules of thumb will help you keep your cool atyour first parents' evening, says James Williams

As a relatively new teacher, I was determined to use parents' evening to tackle a father about the foul language used by his son.

I prepared my speech: "I am concerned by your son's language. It is totally inappropriate and I am sure it is the sort of language that would not be condoned at home."

As the parent entered the hall, removed his coat and sat down, I looked at the T-shirt he was wearing. It had two cartoon rabbits copulating with a caption underneath: "F***s like a Bunny." I knew my argument was lost.

We discussed his son's work, or lack of it, and his behaviour. My parting shot was to remind the parent that his son would be going on work experience soon and that he would have to be courteous to the customers in the shop. We had no complaints.

Parents' evening is an essential part of the school year, and surviving it is an art for the new teacher. You must be prepared. Not just armed to the teeth with data in the form of test results, attendance records, homework, national curriculum levels, projected exam grades and so on, but also prepared to deal with the unexpected.

There is just one question that parents are looking for an answer to: "How is my child doing in school?" But this question is open to a number of interpretations - "is heshe behaving; doing their homework; working hard in class; talking too much; getting along with classmates?".

The success of a parents' evening for both the teacher and the parent revolves around simple answers to basic questions which also offer constructive advice.

In some schools, pupils are encouraged to attend. Opinion is split on whether this is wise. It can work to your advantage; children are surprisingly honest about their own achievements and how much effort they actually put into their work. It is also pleasing to be able to congratulate a child in person about the high quality of work or behaviour. Teachers are not usually good at doing this in class, so a positive comment in front of the parent can be productive.

Every teacher should be aware of the background of the pupils in their charge. This is easier for primary teachers because contact with the pupils is far greater.

But a newly qualified teacher in a secondary school may be teaching up to 180 pupils in a week. Finding out about them all is difficult, but it is important.

I complained to one father that his son was wasting time in class and disrupting the work of others. I laid it on the line and said things had to improve. He was quiet and obviously upset.

The following day, the pupil came to school with a mark on his face. After that he was never any trouble in my lessons, but resented every minute he was with me - nearly a whole academic year.

His father had hit him because he didn't like being embarrassed.

It may have solved the class discipline problem, but it did not do the child any good. He hated my subject, failed completely and resented me.

If I had looked at his file I would have seen that the father was a "hothead". I hadn't researched the background before taking action. The head of year and other staff were aware of the family situation, but they could not be expected to know exactly who is seeing whom for every parents' evening.

So until you have personal knowledge about your charges, talk to other staff, find out about their home background and make informed judgments about how you should handle potential "hothead" parents.

If you do come across such a parent, one who is simply looking for a confrontation, the key thing is to keep calm. Do not shout back, do not be aggressive.

If you are in a hall and the parent is causing a scene, try to get them to leave by inviting them to discuss the issue with you and a senior member of staff in their office. Confrontation and physical attack are rare.

If you are honest and back up your comments with hard evidence, such as examples of the pupil's work, a parents' evening can be very productive.

If you are unprepared it can be a nightmare.

Here follows my own step-by-step survival guide, gleaned from personal experience, to coping with parents' evening:

* Have to hand up-to-date data on the following:


Homework (also be prepared to state what the homework was)


Coursework (for GCSE classes)

An indication of national curriculum level

Participation in class (for example: groupwork, individual work, willingness to answer questions).

Samples of the pupil's work (and make sure it is marked and up to date) * Give constructive advice about how the pupil can improve: wider reading (give examples); practising skills (for example, speaking French aloud); watching television (for example, recorded programmes such as the BBC Learning Zone or Channel 4 for schools).

* Give an indication of the support that you would like the student to be given at home. For example, help with homework, making available timesuitable place for doing homework, purchase of revision guidestextbooks.

* Check the background of the pupils whose parents you will be seeing. If you can look at their file do; if not, consult with colleagues.

* Be prepared to see separateddivorced parents separately; give the same information to both parents; do not get involved in marital issues; stick to the education of their child.

* Do not make derogatory comments in your mark book about pupils - some parents turn out to be expert at reading upside down.

* Have a copy of the latest report that you have written about the pupil.

* Know who to pass difficult parents on to. For example, the head of department for subject-related issues, the head of year for pastoral issues or a member of the senior management team for other serious issues.

* Dress smartly for the occasion, look efficient.

* Don't lose your list of who is coming and what time you have agreed to see them.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at Brunel University

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