A date to remember

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
Speaking to parents about their little darlings is daunting, but they basically want information, and you're the expert

Parents' evenings are stressful, especially coming on top of a day's teaching. Don't be fooled into thinking they're just about how the pupils are doing - you are going to be judged. Like a post-match commentary, everything you say will be analysed at home and at the school gate - especially if you don't handle it well.

Parents will be particularly twitchy about new teachers. If you look young they'll be concerned that you don't know what you're doing. Perhaps you aren't feeling enormously confident.

Many new teachers find the thought of parents' evening terrifying. Indeed, some heads know of teachers who've considered medication to calm their nerves before the event, so scared are they of being "kebabbed" by an articulate, critical parent. If you're a newly qualified teacher (NQT), don't worry, it hardly ever happens. NQT status is nothing to be ashamed of. You have been highly trained in the most up-to-date teaching methods and are enthusiastic and energetic, aren't you? Be proud.

Even though you're snowed under with planning, marking and teaching, investing time into preparing thoroughly for parents' evening is essential. When parents are on your side, life is so much easier. Think of parents' evening as a consumer-provider situation. The secret to happy customers is preparation.

Be prepared

Find someone to talk you through the school's procedures and warn you of any parents who are known to be difficult - and the best way to deal with them. Ask colleagues for their tried and tested ways to respond to complaints - things such as: "Thank you for letting me know your concern: I'll look into it." Ideally arrange to sit in on another teacher's interview with a parent to see how they structure it.

Are you clear about the aim of the parents' meeting? Is it for you to meet parents, or to set targets and discuss progress? Whatever it is, make sure the parents know and that you're prepared.

Plan the timetable of meetings with parents carefully, giving yourself breaks where possible, but don't rely on having any gaps, as you'll probably run over time.

Predict what issues parents might raise, and think of answers. What are you going to say when someone gets cross about the missing coat, the work that's too easy or too hard, or the bullying? If you know who might be difficult, arrange for another member of staff to be around, perhaps bringing you a cup of coffee at a prime time.

Check the last written report, so that you know what the parents have been told before. You'll probably be reinforcing what has already been said, but if you're planning to say something that contradicts previous messages, make sure you have hard evidence to back it up.

Write notes on each child, identifying strengths and areas for development socially and academically. It's useful to ask the pupils what they think you'll say and what they'd like you to say - often they have great insight. Choose a piece of work that illustrates what they can do and just one thing they need to improve. Keep the notes on separate pieces of paper so that people can't see what you're going to say about others.

Make sure marking is up-to-date and everything looks organised, especially displays and any work that will be seen.

Bring a spare set of smart clothes to change into and allow time to freshen up. Jackets help you look and feel professional. Men should play safe with a shirt and tie. Finally, have a supply of drinks and nibbles to keep you going.

The close encounter

Make sure that parents know how long they've got with you - this is normally only five or 10 minutes, but both you and they will want longer. Keep a clock or watch on the table, so that you can keep to time, although this is hard to do.

You need to manage the time well - try to be ruthlessly efficient. Trouble will brew if people are kept waiting too long. The parent who arrives feeling mildly irritated about their child's missing jumper will be really angry by the time they've had to wait 20 minutes to see you.

Watch out for Year 7 parents in particular because the structure of a secondary parents' evening comes as a nasty and bewildering shock: all those strange teachers sitting in the hall, all the queuing. Remember that they're used to sitting in a cosy classroom with a person they've heard heaps about and who spends all day with their child.

Try to look confident, even if you don't feel it. Remember that most parents will be nervous too. Keep anything to hand that you might possibly need, such as examples of work, records and curriculum documents. Have a list of your appointments and tick when you have seen parents. This should avoid confusion and talking about the wrong pupil.

Don't use a parent's last name unless you're sure of it, can pronounce it and know their title: the potential for offence and wasted time is too great. Stick to a phrase such as: "Hello, you've come to talk about X".

Speak clearly and give specific examples of what to improve, rather than a bland "she must work harder". Be tactful, even those hulks are someone's precious babies. Take care what you say and how you say it. It's natural to meet aggression with aggression or to look how you feel - bewildered, confused, irritated and tired - but be calm and professional at all times. If you think someone's lazy, then say that the pupil needs to make more effort.

Listen to what parents have to say and follow up any concerns that they have, doing whatever you've promised to do. Refer any significant issues to more senior teachers.

Avoid comparisons with siblings and other pupils and don't get led into criticising other pupils, teachers or senior staff, even if you share parents' views.

Maintain a professional distance no matter how well you know the parents. Focus on the pupil in question.

Work out a structure for the meeting that makes best use of a short amount of time, such as: "X seems to have settled in well"; a strength, "I'm particularly pleased with ."; something to improve, "but X still needs to work on ." and "Do you have any concerns?"

How are you going to draw your meeting to a close? Use body language that sends the right signal to those sitting at the other side of the table that the conversation has reached a conclusion, such as gathering and shuffling of papers or standing up at a natural break point to signal that the conversation has come to an end.

You'll feel a great sense of achievement when it's over, so celebrate with a glass of something nice in a hot, relaxing bath.

Sara Bubb is an education consultant and specialist in induction and professional development, and lectures at the Institute of Education, London.

Meeting in a nutshell

Introduction Stand, shake hands with warm eye contact, sit down and get straight down to business. "Hello, you've come to talk about X."

Headline "X has settled in well and is making progress."

Strengths (social and academic) "I'm particularly pleased with ." Have some work that illustrates your point.

Areas for improvement (social and academic): "However, X still needs to work on ." Again, have some illustration.

Parents' views "How do you think X is doing? Do you have any concerns?" You could ask this after your headline but you'd risk losing time for your agenda. If you know what they are likely to raise, plan a response. Make a note of their concerns.

Parental help "Could you make sure X practises ."

Conclusion Look at your watch, stand up, offer your hand. "Well, thank you for coming. If you have concerns in the future please let me know."

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