Parents' evening is our turn for detention

17th September 2010 at 01:00
Most parents are highly civil.however, things do not always go smoothly

The parents' evening - a vitally important event in the school calendar, an opportunity to discuss a child's progress, to communicate concerns and to give praise. But nowadays an event that occurs so soon after the teaching day finishes it can feel a little like a detention for teachers.

It can also be a test of stamina. The seemingly endless series of consultations and questions can cause the brain to slowly seize up, so that by the 22nd set of parents the teacher can feel like they have little real control over the cliches and platitudes coming out of their mouth.

Of course, most parents, whether they would admit it or not, come in the hope of hearing a paean of praise for their youngster and it is sometimes too easy to tell them what they would like to hear, thus sending them away happy. After a day's work, it can be tempting to avoid the more contentious comments that can sometimes lead to animosity. In any case, the parents of the pupils most deserving of criticism will tend to stay away - perhaps because they know what's coming.

In my experience, the majority of parents are highly civil, pleasant, reasonable people who are concerned to do the best for their child and look for a constructive meeting. However, things do not always go so smoothly.

Firstly there is the parent who totally ignores the clock and is still there 20 minutes later, having asked you to discuss the intricacies of the key stage 3 scheme of work, regaled you with tales of their own schooldays and updated you on their six other siblings who have previously passed through the school. By now a somewhat disgruntled queue of parents has built up - yet the parent in question is usually impervious to this.

There is also the parent who sees it as a sort of speed dating experience. These will be keen to chat on a range of topics with the aim of getting to know the teacher as intimately as is possible in five minutes (there may be some mention of the child somewhere in passing).

Some even dress up for the occasion in the hope of maximising the effect. I know of only one true "result" when using this approach, though those concerned have now been happily married for almost 20 years.

Then there is the "family outing". That occurs when parents turn up with the three other children, all under five, in tow, and expect you to carry out a conversation while their two-year-old is clambering to sit on your knee in order to share their packet of crisps with you.

Increasingly common is the parent who brings the pupil in question with them (the poor child spends the full five minutes looking at the floor) and parks them alongside for maximum impact.

These will often insist on echoing every comment that you make to the child, either for added emphasis or as if interpreting some very profound and insightful observations. This parent will often end with a comment such as "feel free to clip him round the ear if he steps out of line" as the recalcitrant child is led away.

But for me, the most difficult encounter is when a parent turns up (usually in the Year 7 evening) and offers no information other than that they are here to see you "about Sam". Sam, it turns out, is one of four Sams in a class of 30 that you have taught once a week for just seven weeks. Help! You are not even sure whether it is a Samuel or a Samantha. You then spend the next five minutes praying that you are talking about the right pupil.

Experience helps to develop strategies for such eventualities as you turn the questioning back on the parent in the hope of eliciting some sort of clue as to the child's identity, or you come out with the most anodyne, one-size-fits-all set of comments that you possess. As a last resort you turn the subject to last night's football match.

There are also the unnerving parents. Unnerving parent number one sits impassively, in stony silence, making no attempt to interact in any way while you desperately fill the silences, all attempts to start a dialogue having been met with one-word responses. Sometimes they make careful notes on every word you utter, thus doubling the sense of being scrutinised.

Or unnerving parent number two, who has clearly come clued up on a particular area of teaching - for example, assessment for learning - and then spends the next five minutes interrogating you on their "specialist subject" in the hope of tripping you up. When they eventually manage this they leave content, their mission having been accomplished.

As my son moves into Year 1, I suppose I will become the most unnerving parent of all - the teacher-parent. One of those who will recognise all the stock phrases and euphemisms from a hundred yards away as I will have used them all a hundred times myself.

Geraint Davies is head of arts at Llantarnam School in Cwmbran, Gwent.

  • Original headline: Parents' evening is our turn to be kept behind and told off

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