Make it a night to remember

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Remember the important issues and forget the jargon. Carolyn O'Grady gives advice on steering your way through your first parents' evening.

Parents' evening is a daunting prospect - "a scary experience for any NQT", as one headteacher puts it. But it can be a lot easier if you keep certain things in mind and follow a few rules of thumb. Headteachers, heads of departments and advisory teachers have years of experience of working with pupils and parents and their advice is very consistent. Openness and honesty are the words most used to describe the ideal attitude.

"Don't duck issues. It's all too easy to fail to bring up the most important thing you wanted to raise," says Frank Monaghan, tutor in charge of NQTs, trainees and teachers new to North Westminster Community school, a large comprehensive in the London borough of Westminster.

If you have something important to say, he recommends you "go that extra step". That may mean ringing parents in advance to make sure you don't miss seeing them.

Wendy Zaidi, headteacher at Rolls Crescent school, an inner city Manchester primary, says that if you have to say something critical about a child's behaviour or work, it must be said, but try to "strike the right balance between positive and negative". And she adds: "If the child is not doing well, be upbeat about what you and the rest of the school are doing to improve the situation."

Angry parents are always dreaded. Probably the best advice is to try and make sure that difficult issues are tackled before they get out of hand and explode at parents' evening. Parents' evenings happen infrequently, and teachers should, of course, be in touch with parents as other times.

But faced with a seriously irate parent or carer, whom you feel unable to calm down, suggest that he or she sees someone else.

Miriam Rinsler, acting head at Burdett Coutts primary school, Westminster, says before your first parents' evening, seek advice on the procedures. "And find out what you should do in a situation you don't feel you can handle - for example, should you fetch the head or head of department or find your mentor?" Parents, especially those with children with special needs, often think a child isn't being given enough attention by the teacher, which is a difficult one to deal with. Mel Farrar, head of Foxdenton special school in Oldham, says you must not be afraid to explain the problems faced by the school - for example, if support services aren't available, say so. Then try to explain what the school is doing about it. Also invove the parents: tell them what they can do to help their child at home.

Time-keeping is another area of concern. How do you make sure you don't get pinned down with parents for far longer than is allowed by the timetable? "Sit where you can discreetly see a clock," says Sue Nicholson, advisory head with Southampton Educational Quality Service. "If time is running out, let them know that other people are waiting, but suggest that if they want to talk more you make an appointment for them (and make sure you do it)."

And, if you feel you are being sidetracked - for example, into conversations about another teacher or into personal family territory - "say gently you can't comment on that and try and move the conversation back to what you will be doing to help their child achieve success". Again, if you get into deep water suggest they see the head.

And she adds some practical points: plan well in advance and list the key points to discuss - especially if not everything is rosy. Remember that a parent's name may be different from that of their child. Or you may be talking to a carer rather than a parent: a foster parent, for example.

If appropriate, you could make a list of your class and fill in the parent or carer's name under that of their child.

Check you are discussing the right child with the right parents - people don't always stick to their appointment time. Ensure you can talk without being heard by other parents.

Use clear language - don't patronise or blind with educational jargon. Have samples of the child's work ready. It gives the discussion focus and allows you to clearly illustrate a child's strengths and weaknesses.

Don't refer to lists of test marks - parents won't listen as they strain to see how everyone else in the class did. Never get drawn into comparing children's attainment or behaviour with others in the class.

Be sensitive to the home situation while remembering you are a teacher, not a social worker or marriage guidance counsellor. Make notes of anything you need to follow up (and make sure you do).

And, most important, don't panic. New teachers can feel at a disadvantage because they are usually younger than parents or carers. "But remember that you have the professional expertise," says Miriam Rinsler.

And, says Mel Farrar: "Try to convey that you like their child. Every child is special to their parents. They want to feel that to be reflected by the teacher. Take seriously what they tell you and listen for the underlying messages as well as the overt."

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