Dreading parents' evening? Stephen Calladine-Evans offers survival tips.
For the new teacher or even one just new to the school, a parent consultation evening can be nerve wracking. Taking place, as it often does, at the end of a long working day, the experience can perhaps be best compared to three hours of speed dating with no prospect of finding the love of your life. However, the worst anxieties can be eased by following five basic rules.
Rule 1: prepare well but don't bring too much evidence.
A few notes beside each pupil's name will suffice for most five or 10-minute sessions. The general trend of grades, the current level of attainment and a target clear enough to be remembered the following day are quite sufficient. So rather than: "She is very quiet in class", one can compliment the standard of written work and say: "She should aim to answer one question in each lesson."
Bringing all of the exercise books or folders of work to the table can give the impression of not knowing the class and, if you rummage around to find a book or page, can make you appear rather disorganised.
Rule 2: accentuate the positive but don't avoid bad news. For most parents and carers the evening can be daunting. They hope that all is well, but cannot be sure, or they start the evening with a firm belief that bad news is coming. If you have bad news to deliver tell them at the outset but make it clear that the story is not all doom and gloom. So phrases like: "I'm sorry to tell you that ..." should be replaced with: "I'm going to tell you some of the good things that he has been doing and then I'm going to pick some areas for development."
When you have finished with the bad news, make sure that you have made it clear what positive steps can be taken to address the issue. Even if a dozen things are wrong, talk about no more than three. You might feel better for getting it off your chest, but it's very unlikely to change the situation.
Rule 3: you should make it personal but not too personal.
In praise make sure you are praising the child. In criticism be critical of the behaviour or action. Condemn the child and it is set in stone. It is the behaviour or actions that need to change and that is best achieved by explaining how the child will benefit from the alteration.
Rule 4: remember that it should be a dialogue rather than a monologue.
A stock repertoire of questions can open up the session into a discursive experience. "Are they enjoying the subjecttopic?" is a classic attempt doomed to failure because of the closed structure. Keep questions open - "How do you think she feels about the subjecttopic?"
If disaster strikes and the approach to you is hostile, keep a calm and collected expression, neither confronting nor confuting. Note down the issues and then tell the parent or carer that you want to recap. When you have read back the points, tell them that these clearly require more assessment than is currently available in the limited time. Arrange an interview or record contact details and assure them you will work with them to resolve the matter.
Rule 5: stand up.
When greeting stand up and shake hands. Welcome them. Smile with your mouth and your eyes. Invite them to be seated. By doing this you are asserting, in the nicest possible way, three important features - you are happy to see them. You are there to collaborate not confront. You are in control.
Five simple rules to make the evening a success. They might work in speed dating too, which would be a bonus.
Stephen Calladine-Evans teaches in Sussex.