Tales from new teachers

Upsetting the wrong parent

The problem

Every teacher has part of their subject that they are particularly geeky about. Reading for pleasure does it for me, not least because of its countless short- and long-term benefits to students. So I couldn't have been more delighted when I was given my first project as a fresh-faced newly qualified teacher: to redesign the Year 7 reading challenge. There was no way I could mess it up. Or so I thought.

Despite all my efforts to smarten up the scheme and make it more accessible to our reluctant readers, the worst happened: I received a complaint from a parent.

The options

Constructive criticism is a natural and necessary part of teaching. In fact, the very first lecture of my PGCE course was on the subject of reflective practice. I had learned to evaluate my own work and accept the judgement of my mentors. But to be criticised by a parent? The lecture hadn't covered that.

It wasn't pleasant. The parent had emailed my head of department, who was tasked with breaking the news to me. To my relief, she was more concerned about how it affected my confidence than my work which, thankfully, she was prepared to defend to the hilt. It was a comfort to know that she was on my side.

I wasn't angry or offended. I didn't immediately start plotting this parent's untimely demise. I was just disappointed in myself - because this parent wasn't any old parent. She worked in children's publishing. She was an industry expert. And she had used the word "uninspiring" to describe my work. I was gutted.

After speaking to a few of my colleagues, it transpired that this parent was notorious for sharing her opinions, even on the subjects in which she had no expertise. But neither that information, nor the glass of wine they bought me later at the pub, lifted my mood.

I resolved to get a copy of the email and pick it to pieces with my mentor, who could offer an unbiased, critical opinion.

The result

On second reading, we found that the general gist of the complaint wasn't actually to do with the content of the challenge, more that it didn't suit the reading habits of her child. I could cope with that. A reading challenge for an entire year group must, by its very nature, take a blanket approach. That it wasn't perfectly suited to one child was normal. It was just a shame it had to be the child of someone who works for a publishing house.

My head of department explained this in her reply, which I was copied in on. We didn't get any further feedback from the parent, but that wasn't the end of it for me.

On reflection, the challenge wasn't perfect; I had already identified some problem areas to work on.

And so the cycle of improvement began again. My lecturer would have been proud.

The writer is a newly qualified teacher in Hertfordshire

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