Parents as friends in waiting

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Victoria Neumark suggests howfamilies can be drawn into positive relationships.

Who are parents? And what do they want? Many a novice teacher, barely coming to grips with 30-odd children, feels a pang at also coming to grips with 60-odd parents. And, according to the grapevine, parents can be very odd indeed.

Who hasn't heard of the dad who broke a chair over the teacher's head, the mum who hysterically attacked her rival in love in the playground, the divorcing couple pulling their offspring in different directions (literally), and the parent who reels in smelling of drink. Not to mention even more bizarre anecdotes about children kept at home "to do the washing" or "to watch her favourite TV programme", still more chilling stories about child abuse and neglect, or the unwanted attentions of lovesick fathers. Parents, teachers often seem to believe, are the pits.

One of the simplest truths about parents is that they are generally motivated by anxiety. Peter Gordon, headteacher of Hazelwood infants school, in north London, is doing a work-based MA at Middlesex University on parent-teacher interaction. He says: "The first thing young teachers have to realise is that the children they have in their class are someone's absolute preciouses. "

There is nothing quite like the surge of hormones to render even the sanest commodity broker or computer programmer quite barking, especially if the subject is little Johnny "having problems". Says Mr Gordon: "When parents are concerned about their children, teachers need to realise that it is a genuine concern, even if they (the teachers) may feel it is misguided."

The best way to deal with this latent tide of parental anxiety is to be pro-active. Go out there and be friendly, ensure that parents know right from the start that you are on their child's side and that you will deal fairly by them.

"The single most important piece of advice for getting on with parents, " says Mike Beale, head of Holland Moor primary school, in Skelmersdale in Lancashire, "is to be around at the end of the day."

At Holland Moor teachers see the children through the cloakroom and out to their waiting parents. At once, the possibility for informal contact is established. All teachers are on site from 3.30pm until 4pm each day, so any parent wanting to see a teacher (or a teacher wanting to see a parent) has a guaranteed slot available. Just knowing that on any day they can see the teacher has a calming effect, believes Mr Beale, who in his eight years of running the school in a very tough "new town" has never had a parent be difficult.

Openness, says Peter Gordon, needs to be built into the fabric of a school. At Hazelwood the parents' policy stresses encouraging parents to take an active part in their child's education.

Helping in the classroom, accompanying school outings, attending assemblies: these should all be avenues of teacher-child interaction which are freely available. Then the more daunting open evenings will arrive in a more welcoming context - for parent and teacher alike.

Mr Beale believes in structures. At Holland Moor the regular home-reading scheme is also used for communication between parents and teacher. A brief note to say "Billy did really well on the apparatus today" or "Sarah seems to have a bit of a cold" keeps the lines open.

"It is important that the school is seen as sending good news," emphasises Mr Beale. Then, if less palatable information has to be broken, the context of a positive relationship is already in place.

Many schools have newsletters, which parents value. It is, of course, important that you, as a teacher, actually read the newsletter which the parents receive. Otherwise you won't be able to respond to their remarks about it. Remember, the parents do not know that you are a relatively new and junior member of the staff and the head just bangs these things out without you knowing. Likewise, you need to know the contents of any letters from the PTA or dentist, even though they are not originating from you. But, suggests Mike Beale, these kinds of bread-and-butter communication can be supplemented by more inventive means.

At Holland Moor they have a "telegraph" system. When a child is particularly industrious or inspired, the office sends home a telegram, with "Gemma read in assembly today", or whatever. And it is staff policy to use the informal encounters in the playground every day to tell a parent or two something positive about their child, working their way through the register. When relationships have been built up like this, parents' evenings are not likely to hold any unwelcome surprises.

When David Higgins first came to Chace secondary school in Enfield, there were seven parents in the hall at open evenings. Now, with a full programme of activities, a local nursery and community enrichment group using the site, the school hosts 1,400 parents each term. As parental involvement has grown, exam results improved. And, of course, as results have improved, so parents feel more positive.

But, what if despite all your best endeavours, someone seems determined to get nasty with you? Stay calm. Remember that it is the angry person who has a problem and see it as your place to help him or her.

Just as you would with a furious child, do not let yourself be forced into an instant reaction. Say: "I'll look into it and get back to you within 24 hours." If you use this line, you must keep your word, however, or you will have an even angrier person the next day. Use the time to talk with the head and plan your response. Never feel that you have to deal with difficult situations on your own. As Peter Gordon says: "Teachers do not have specific training in dealing with parents. It is learnt on the job."

It can be quite inspiring to think of relationships with parents as part of the web of relationships on which a school depends. At Holland Moor teachers are often in and out of each other's classrooms, discussing and monitoring each other's practices. Children are sent to other classrooms to show off their achievements and parents are invited to assemblies. If you don't think of parents as the enemy, but as friends whom you need to keep informed, chances are that is the way they'll think of you.

Education has to be a partnership. You read it in your coursework, but it is true. The three-quarters of a child's life spent outside school need to be in a friendly relation to what goes on in the classroom. So go out there and make friends, listen and above all, assume the best. Then sit back and enjoy the end-of-term plaudits.

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