As a mother of two teenage daughters, I have braved my fair share of stressful parents' evenings, but none compares to a friend's experience. She had barely sat down when an embarrassed teacher handed over a picture drawn by her 10-year-old son, which at best illustrated a bondage scene and at worst the workings of a serial killer's brain.
"I'd gone with a list of questions about how he was getting on at school but the picture was such a shock that I forgot to ask any of them," she remembers. Instead my friend went straight home and quizzed her son, only to find his drawing was an innocent, if somewhat graphic, interpretation of a pop video.
"There shouldn't be any big surprises at parents' evening - any real cause for concern should have been discussed before," says Sheila Rait, who after more than 30 years in teaching still remembers her first one as a newly qualified teacher in a small primary school near Lockerbie.
"It was terrifying because I didn't know what to expect. The parents were older than me and I felt sure they were thinking I was too young to be a teacher."
Sheila was only 21 and one difficult mother openly criticised her for not being hard enough on her child, whom the parents thought needed "toughening up". She felt her training had failed to prepare her for handling such "tricky parents".
Experience has taught her that, even with difficult parents: "You have to remember it's a professional rather than a personal relationship, however personal they may get."
She advises NQTs to take the opportunity to shadow more experienced colleagues before their own first parents' evening. There is more emphasis on parent interaction during training, if not in college then during teaching placements. All the same, support can be patchy.
One "stressed-out NQT" turned to the internet for help, with a plea to the TES Connect forums: "I don't know if it's just nerves but I honestly don't know where to start and what to say to my parents. Is anyone else feeling this way?"
Advice ranged from "keeping it light" to being "an active listener" and avoiding "a barrage of targets, numbers and acronyms". All good advice when, as one poster remarked: "You can always spot an NQT because they're trying too hard."
NQT Patrick McMahon is in his first term at an inner-city Rochdale school. Most of his Year 2 class come from the surrounding Pakistani and Bengali communities, and at parents' evenings, teaching assistants double as translators to help with any language difficulties.
Patrick's first parents' evening went well, and he felt confident because he already had good relationships with many parents. His main concern was: "Condensing everything you want to say about a pupil into five minutes. If you're not careful you end up concentrating on maths and English, and not talking about the child's personality."
Primary teacher Elaine Duggan is meticulous in her planning, writing notes on each pupil. "It can be very hard to switch between children. When it's one parent after another, your mind can go blank," she says.
At secondary, subject-led consultations, there is even more focus on targets and assessments, particularly during GCSE and A-level years. There also may be more individual consultations and less opportunity to develop relationships with parents beforehand.
Often secondary pupils are invited to accompany their parents, and they attend with varying degrees of reluctance. "Don't you dare embarrass me," my older daughter would whisper in my ear as she trailed into the school hall where I was trying to locate the relevant teachers among line online of desks. With a timetable of appointments to meet, you are late at your peril.
Jane Chapelard, NQT and new staff induction tutor at Tunbridge Wells Girls' Grammar, organises training and support which helps build new teachers' confidence. At parents' evening, NQTs are positioned near their curriculum leader or department head and can refer parents for further discussion to members of the pastoral or leadership teams.
Jane knows that NQTs often worry how parents will react to predicted grades, particularly for exams like GCSE. She advises them "to start off with lots of positives and then normally parents cope with the negatives, or you can ask the pupil how they think they're doing. We also encourage our NQTs to try to establish relationships with parents beforehand by reporting successes through the school planner, or perhaps by e-mail or phone."
With only five years' teaching experience herself, she admits: "Parents' evenings are bound to be daunting at first, but they get easier with experience as you learn tactics and pick up tips from colleagues."
GREET THE PARENTS: AN NQT MUST-DO LIST
- Remember you are the professional, so be confident in what you say.
- Dress smartly but appropriately - as you would in the classroom. Male teachers may be expected to wear shirt and tie.
- Be clear about the school's reason for parents' evening.
- Be prepared with evidence of pupil's work and ability.
- Think of something nice to say about each pupil.
- Think of one thing parents could do to help their child.
- In need of an ice-breaker - let parents take the lead by asking how they feel their child is getting on.
- Remember that, like you, parents want the best for their child.
- Make sure you sound like you care even if the pupil is the most difficult in class.
- Make sure you get a cup of tea or coffee to keep you going - and try not to overrun.