Be friendly, polite and professional at all times but don't be afraid to stick to your guns . . . Lindsey Thomas offers advice on how to cope with parents' evening.
For a new teacher, one of the overriding emotions must be apprehension - meeting the staff, getting to grips with the pupils, coping with all the admin. Possibly the most nerve-wracking experience of all has to be parents' evenings. You've had only a few weeks in which to learn all their names but you're already being called upon to speak with authority about their progress, ability, social development, future GCSE grades . . .
To whom do you have to impart your expertise? Their parents, the parents who have known them all their lives. And you have to do this after a long day teaching, when you've probably only had time to wolf a slightly stale sandwich left over from lunch and while the final, dramatic episode of your favourite television programme is being shown.
Parents can be very strange creatures. Some of them anyway, after all someone (possibly an alien life-form) must have given birth to (spawned) obnoxious Johnny Herbert in 3b. Something must have made him the way he is. This is your opportunity to find out what.
Apart from the curiosity side of things, parents' evenings can be very useful for teachers too. Most parents want their children to do well and want to know how to help them do that. Most of them want their children to behave well, and need to know if they do not. Quite often if there is a problem at home that is affecting their child they will tell you this as well. This is your opportunity to draw on all the support and sanctions that only parents can provide.
That said, there are bound to be some nagging doubts. What if I say the wrong thing? What if they don't believe me? What if they have a go at me? What if they complain about me? Common fears. There are, though - you knew it was coming, and here it is - ways to make things just that little bit easier.
Make sure you are well prepared. There will probably be some kind of appointments system so you should have some idea of who you're going to see. Bear in mind that not all of them will turn up, frequently the one who doesn't will be the one you most want to see. It is also worth finding out whether heads of year make sure parents of those children who may not want their teachers to speak to them are aware of the parents' evening or contact parents of some children and invite them to see certain members of staff. (This can have a similar effect as a letter inviting a student to see the bank manager. ) Prepare what you want to say to each parent and take your notes with you, as well as your mark records and exercise books if appropriate - Johnny Herbert's parents may be easier to convince when faced with overwhelming evidence.
Check the seating arrangements in advance and try to ensure that you are sitting next to an experienced member of staff, preferably your head of department, who can step in if things get tricky. (This will also give you the opportunity to listen to the way they handle interviews and pick up some handy hints.) Find out, from the form tutor or head of year, if there are any parents on your list who are known to be "difficult" and if you don't feel confident about talking to them on your own, try to arrange for your head of department, the head of year or the form tutor to be there to lend moral support when you see them. Most teachers are happy to help in this.
The vast majority of the parents you will meet will be there to listen to what you have to say. You are the one with the training and, bluntly, you know more than them about how to teach your subject and how their little darling behaves in your lesson. You should bear in mind, too, that children often have multiple personalities. Don't be put off if you are told that Silent Sarah or Mute Michael never shut up at home, or vice versa. Some parents will not want to believe what you have to say if you are not singing the praises of their offspring. As well as viewing their little darlings through rose-coloured glasses, many parents feel that their child is a reflection of them and are naturally somewhat defensive. It is worth going fairly gently until you feel sure of your ground.
You may come across a parent who will not want to accept what you say on the grounds that you are too young, inexperienced or female to know anything. Do your best to rise above it and stand your ground, very politely. Usually giving specific examples of incidents and how you have dealt with them will help. If it doesn't, and they have directly criticised you in a way that you consider unfair, ask your head of department to write to them suggesting a meeting to discuss the situation.
In other cases a parent may have an axe to grind about something other than the way you run your lessons. Try to keep bringing the conversation back to the matter in hand and don't be drawn into other areas.
If this doesn't work and it is a school-based issue, politely but firmly refer them to someone else, the head of year, a deputy or the head. If they have a problem with your teaching, or with something that has happened in your lesson and you aren't able to deal with it then and there, offer to investigate the matter and get back to them.
The golden rule is to be friendly, polite and professional at all times but don't be afraid to stick to your guns. Remember that you are a teacher and not a verbal punch-bag and if, as is very occasionally the case, a parent is drunk, abusive or threatening, it is not your job to deal with it.
Try not to feel defensive, you are a good teacher and you have nothing to hide. Remind yourself that this is a partnership in which they have an even greater vested interest than you, and they are coming to find out about their child's progress; you are not standing trial for being an inexperienced teacher.
Lindsey Thomas teaches at The Lord Grey School, Bletchley, Milton Keynes