First step - Meet the parents

9th October 2009 at 01:00
First parents' evenings fill many with trepidation. Will they be pushy or aggressive? It's best to be prepared

Parents' evening can be a daunting experience for even the most capable of teachers. Having to talk to parents about their child's behaviour or poor attainment can cause friction. How can newly qualified teachers assert their authority?

"Organisation is key," says James Williams, lecturer in science education at Sussex University. "Make sure on the night that you have your information ready and to hand - a copy of the report that went home, your list of attendance and marks for classwork and homework, as well as examples of the pupil's work."

Stacey Schultz, who has recently completed her NQT year, confirms that careful preparation will ensure that the evening runs smoothly. "I was nervous before the first appointment at parents' evening, particularly about remembering to say everything I had intended," she says. "But my preparation really paid off - I had talked to colleagues ahead of time and discussed tips with them, particularly about managing the very tight five- minute time slots we had with each parent."

One way of tackling time slots is to start each appointment with a clear agenda. For example, you could start by saying: "If we begin by discussing levels and targets, we can then talk about any questions you may have." That way you are setting out your agenda to the parents, as well as asserting your authority as the child's teacher, says Professor Williams.

Sarah Smith, who is now in her third year of teaching, had a rather catastrophic incident at her first parents' evening. "I thought I had managed to learn the names of all the pupils," she says. "When I declared that one child behaved impeccably, the parents were visibly shocked. It turns out that I had confused him with another pupil with the same surname - I was mortified."

Miss Smith quickly recovered from her mistake by moving on to the child's work, attitude and attendance. "I learnt a lot from this experience," she says. "The next parents' meeting went without any confusion, and I had a lot more confidence. From then on, I always made sure I was prepared."

New teachers are often apprehensive at the thought of meeting antagonistic parents. "Be careful not to promise what you cannot deliver," says Professor Williams. "Some pushy parents may want you to promise that their child will get top levels or grades, far ahead of their actual ability. You need to be cautious yet not damning.

"If a parent has a concern that you cannot address, make sure that you know who is available that evening to help, such as an assistant, deputy head or a head of department," he advises. "If you get flustered, take a moment and write down what the parent is asking about. Say that you need to think about this and that you will contact them - take a contact number, but make sure that you do respond and provide the answer."

Sometimes anxieties about demanding parents will turn out to be unfounded. "One Year 7 parent was notorious among staff for being belligerent," recalls Mrs Schultz. "I was understandably anxious about the appointment. However, she was pleased with her son's progress and almost went so far as to praise me for how he had settled and taken to the subject."

Professor Williams advises new teachers to avoid education jargon, as this could come across as arrogant. "Parents will not have a clue about many acronyms we use, eg, what an ISA is in science, or what APP involves," he says.

"Make sure that you explain things in plain, simple English and spell out acronyms if you have to use them. You may well be a lot younger than the parents you are talking to. Remember you are the expert and will be giving advice - so phrase it as such."

HOW TO PREPARE FOR PARENTS' EVENING

- Organisation is key - make sure you have your information ready and to hand.

- Start each appointment with a clear agenda.

- Make sure you know who is available to address questions beyond your remit.

- Avoid education jargon.

- Start and end on a positive note.

- Do not promise what you cannot deliver.

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