Meeting parentscalls for both diplomacy and honesty, says Maureen McTaggart
Rachel doesn't see herself as a pushy parent, but neither is she easily palmed off with meaningless phrases such as "average ability, making satisfactory progress".
The first parents' evening at her son's new secondary school was going well. The praise heaped on her slightly chubby precious was still ringing in her ears as she took her turn in front of his German teacher's desk.
"Your son is useless. He is a sloth and won't be in the top stream next term. As a matter of fact, the whole class is useless. There are only four capable children in it." Within seconds the teacher had reduced Rachel to a quivering wreck.
"I felt as if I had gone five rounds with Mike Tyson," says Rachel. "It was a very frightening experience, and I was grateful my son wasn't there to hear his personality, shape and ability attacked in such a spiteful way. He obviously needed help with this subject, but I should have been told sooner. And comparing him to a sloth is not helpful."
Rachel is having second thoughts about attending more meetings. "My anxiety level is already rising, although the next one is more than two months away."
Joanne Wright, who teaches English and religious education at a north London grammar school, derides such a heavy-handed and negative approach. She says that while these events should be more than public relations exercises, if you have any important concerns about a pupil's progress, parents' evening is almost too late to be dealing with them.
Two years into her teaching career, she says: "Parents are motivated by anxiety and are very sensitive about criticisms laid on their children. In order to make the most of parents' evenings it is wise to follow a carefully prepared game plan.
"Before your first meeting, take advice from your head of department and more experienced teachers. Make sure your marking is up to date, always try to have examples of pupils' work close to hand and, while keeping the atmosphere positive, discuss specific topics which pose problems."
Elaine Atkinson, deputy head of Tong Park First School, Bradford, likes surprises but thinks they should be saved for birthdays and Christmases. She says: "Communication is the key. A successful parents' evening largely depends on ensuring parents are kept regularly well informed of their child's progress.
"Send out your annual reports well in advance and encourage parents to bring theirs with them. It is a very useful tool for new teachers who are worried about where to begin the conversation."
Even after careful preparations things can go wrong. Elaine Atkinson once had to position herself very close to the open door when one father came to see her slightly worse for wear after a drinking session, just in case she had to make a quick exit. And Joanne Wright remembers waffling for 10 minutes because she couldn't make sense of a parent's accent. "Thankfully I managed to get the sex of the pupil right. If I found myself in a similar position now I would turn the situation around by asking the parents lots of questions. This takes the focus away from me and I get feedback at the same time."
Sometimes teachers find themselves refereeing marital disagreements between parents: difficulties at home often surface during these sessions.
"Honesty is important," says Joanne Wright. "I always tell parents if a child is not reaching his or her full potential and encourage them to help in specific areas. They have a part to play in helping their children to succeed. Parents don't want to be fobbed off with bland answers."
Jackie Armstrong-Deroy admits her sole purpose for meeting teachers is to understand the academic commitment they require of her child. But in her experience teachers appear reluctant to discuss how one child is doing in relation to others in the class. "When I ask a teacher what position my child is in the class it isn't because I want her to compete with her peers. I just want an accurate assessment to make sure she's not falling behind."
Elaine Atkinson concedes that telling a parent how their child ranks in a class is difficult - especially if the child is not a high-flyer. She advises new teachers to steer parents towards evidence of the progress the child has made.
"Invite them to look at what the child was doing six months ago and discuss improvement," she says. "Always start from the positive, but be honest and say if there are other children achieving more, and come back to the positive with something like: 'This is the progress your child has made. I am very happy with it and I hope you're happy with it too'."
Remember, says Joanne Wright, that parents are more worried about meeting you than you are about meeting them. "If it all goes horribly wrong the first time, go home, have a stiff drink and forget about it. You will do better next time."
HOW TO MAKE PARENTS' EVENING A NIGHT TO REMEMBER
* Make workbooks and files available forparents to look through * Explain how parents can support students at home * Have a copy of your latest report on thepupil * Give the results of any standardised forms of testing the school may use * Make sure your marking is up to date * Give simple answers to basic questions and offer constructive advice * Try to be aware of the background of your pupils * Deal sensitively with matters of behaviour * Steer difficult parents in the direction of year heads or senior management team (usually sitting at a safe distance on the stage or in some other elevated position) * Have a list of who is coming and what time you have agreed to see them.
* Don't give "bland" feedback. Some parents will have queued for more than 30 minutes to see you * Don't patronise or humiliate anyone * Don't give false impressions of pupils' achievements. Parents will not thank you for deceiving them