There's a knack to parents' evening talk, Pete Garner surmises ...
It is parents' evening for Year 7. It has been "suggested" that as a PGCE student I would benefit from attending and learning the technique for such occasions. Two classes I teach will have students there tonight .
My instructions are clear: listen and learn from the experienced teachers. A statement follows from one of them that he found facing a parents' evening more daunting than any class. Now this is worrying, as he is six foot three, believed to be an ex-Marine officer and is feared by half the staffroom let alone the children.
As I enter the school car park that evening the atmosphere is different and electric. I am greeted immediately by an anxious student from one of my classes as her mum unhesitatingly states that: "All teachers should be given medals for teaching kids like mine." It is interesting to watch her daughter cringe with embarrassment.
Inside the school hall the members of staff are ready, each seated around the outside facing in . . . definitely backs against the wall. No one ventures into the middle where the parents are thronging. Crossing the centre to get in position I am immediately set on by anxious parents keen to find the correct teacher. Mindful of my earlier instructions, I attempt to reply without speaking and am forced to point at a distant figure.
My two mentors are seated some distance apart and I spend the evening moving between them like a infantryman crawling along a Somme trench, aware of the confrontation around him and thus keeping his head down. The contrast in styles and subjects discussed could not be more extreme. One of the classes is a top set where most families receive only reassurance about progress and occasional qualified suggestions for improvement. My mentor earnestly but briefly indicates to a besuited businessman that his son is definitely in the upper quartile of his class. Father nods sagely; they shake hands and the parent leaves content.
So that's the technique, I surmise - be complimentary. Then the second part of my briefing pops into my mind. Always tell them the whole truth: parents will not thank you for deceiving them. So I listen with rapt attention as my other mentor eloquently and with genuine concern describes in pleasant detail how awful the angelic child seated in front of him is in class.
We are all swept along by his gentle but earnest tirade and even the girl agrees without hesitation, not yet aware of the consequences. My mentor only smiles gently when the parent suggests that he should "give her a good clip if she steps out of line again".
Before dashing back to my other position I glance around the hall. Teachers are bobbing up and down in a surreal dance as they greet parents. This is because they are aware that at the end of the allocated five minutes, if they stand up their temporary guests will also stand and depart for their next revelation about their offspring.
Back to the top set and the conversation is totally relaxed, almost informal. The mum looks familiar. She is a head of year! My mind races. Would I have marked her daughter's work differently if I had known? Both teachers effortlessly engage in discussion about the child's long multiplication skills, putting to one side the fact that they both meet daily in a professional capacity.
The evening is drawing to a close. The last parents are shuffling out of the hall, congratulating the senior management team on their excellent school. Strangely, the team surround the only exit, seemingly positioned to prevent a premature retreat by their staff . . .
Pete Garner is completing a PGCE course at North West Teacher Trainers in secondary mathematics