Over-familiar with parents?

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
Pat Denison answers your leadership questions

My deputy, who has been with me for a couple of years, has brilliant interpersonal skills. She is much more adept socially than I am, outgoing and gregarious, whereas I am more reserved and introverted.

I have always seen this as an asset to our partnership. Increasingly, though, I am beginning to feel uneasy about practices that have crept into the school as a result of her over-familiarity with a group of parents. She meets parents socially and some are evidently strong friends. These parents have quite an influence in the playground, so now others have adopted their practice of inviting the class teacher out for drinks, buying extravagant presents at the end of term and generally behaving as though their children's teacher is a personal friend.

A couple of the older teachers disapprove saying new staff feel under pressure to socialise with parents and that the disparity between one teacher and another's gift haul causes resentment. But when I try to share my concerns with my deputy, she waves me away and tells me I'm overreacting. Am I worrying unnecessarily? is this simply a sign of the times?

I would guess that you watch your deputy do what she does best with admiration mixed with nagging feelings of personal doubt. That just isn't your style, but perhaps you would like to be a little more "socially adept" than you are? And, importantly, something is bothering you and you don't know what it is.

First of all, I think you should pay proper attention to your intuition.

There are many occasions in headship when a "gut feeling" signals an oncoming problem before it happens. How many times have I heard colleagues, when recounting their latest people disaster, say "if only I had listened to myself" or"'if only I'd trusted myself"? Our subconscious mind is a powerful informer; it has absorbed knowledge, taken note of tiny indicators of threat, learnt from a mass of information about the world that our conscious mind filters out. Your subconscious has diagnosed a problem. You now need to pay conscious attention to decipher what that problem is. Only then will you have any idea of how to solve it.

Start to observe keenly what is happening in the school around the issue of parents and teachers. Watch and listen to interactions, note social arrangements that are initiated in school: who initiates them, and with whom? Start to become alert to signs that might indicate some unvoiced resentment. Often, a throwaway remark or look provides clear pointers to unexpressed feelings of annoyance or recognition of a problematic situation, and, if ignored, can store up considerable ill-feeling.

You need to know whether this practice of socialising with parents is having a negative effect on the school culture. Is it eroding of equal opportunities? Do some parents perceive that they have an advantage over others? Do others perceive that they are on the fringes of a powerful elite? Is a relationship with some parents skewing teachers' professional judgement when reporting children's progress? Can you be absolutely sure that confidentiality is sacrosanct? And what about these "extravagant gifts" to teachers? What is the moral perspective here?

Try to articulate to yourself what underpins your concerns and then frame some questions. Make the questions absolutely open and naive: you want people to be forthcoming, not guarded. Be careful not to reveal any assumption you might be making: people have a way of saying 'I know what you're thinking' and responding to that, which clouds their response. Find out whether your parent governors share your unease - they will have a good sense of the temperature of the playground.

You may be surprised to find that your instincts are accurate, and that people have a lot to reveal. You should now have a much clearer picture; this will allow you to talk to your deputy in terms which are objectively based on unambiguous feedback rather than on vague emotional triggers. She will therefore be better placed to understand them and to be willing to give them due consideration.

You should now be able, with whole-team involvement, to come to an agreement about what a parent-friendly school looks like and feels like.

Together, you will make explicit a culture which is welcoming, transparent and inclusive, which addresses and breaks down barriers and which contributes to the healthy emotional climate you all want.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email pdenison@thevillageschool.demon.co.uk

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