Laura Peters has learned that teachers sometimes have to listen to parents as well as talk at them
My worst parent interview is an occasion I wish to forget. The parents had received a heidie's call-up note. Their 10 year old son had been tormenting his peers and manipulating me for a term. It was hoped that parental cooperation would succeed where all else had failed.
The mother arrived promptly for business. It took two minutes to realise where her son got attitude from. She was in a particularly bad mood that day as the tattoo just removed from her arm was turning septic. This potentially difficult parent was respectful to the headteacher but looked disdainfully at me. To her I was just another young inexperienced middle class teacher who could not control her "wean".
My role in the meeting was minor. The headteacher told me to appear reasonable and describe the child's behaviour when asked. I was a waitress for the prosecution, the "telltale", reporting the evidence.
After mum assured us she would have a word with him, she was eager to leave. I was too - I was shrinking by the minute. But I was not allowed to return to my class until the janitor confirmed that mum had left the premises.
Not surprisingly, this parent never spoke to me again that year, and any change in her son's behaviour was left to wishful thinking. Last heard of he was being detained by Her Majesty.
I vowed that I would never find myself professionally in such a them and us situation again. Although I have kept my word, I frequently struggle to maintain the cooperative "we" in the parent-teacher relationship.
One reason for this is that parents are not a homogenous group. There are helpful, supportive and interested parents, but there are also the aggressive, non-communicative, over anxious and rude. Teachers have to communicate with all types.
Just because we can communicate with children in the classroom does not automatically mean that we can easily apply similar skills to parents. For example, I remember being newly qualified and preoccupied with what I wanted to say to parents on parents' night and how to present it. But I did not give a thought to what parents might want to say to me.
The requirement to stop talking and listen only dawned on me when a parent who was so upset at her son's work began to sob uncontrollably in front of me. My teacher training was no help.
I had foolishly and naively expected parents to listen passively to my feedback and praise my valiant efforts.
Imagine my disappointment when not only were parents indifferent to my teaching, but most interrupted and asked difficult questions. Some even had their own agenda.
I soon realised that I had to improve my skills in communication if I was going to develop any rapport with parents.
Communication for teachers involves careful handling of parents as well as providing information. I have on occasion in school uncomfortably watched an angry parent have a go at a pupil in school they thought was giving their child a hard time. I intervened and tried to diffuse the situation, but felt that it was not my position to rebuke the parent. I reported the incident to my headteacher. To my knowledge, the school took no further action.
Similarly, in my experience, when a teacher receives unreasonable hostility or abuse from a parent, it has to be accepted as part of the job. Schools rarely ask parents to say sorry.
What messages does this send out to children, teachers and parents? To children it suggests that their parents can act as they please in the school. To teachers it suggests that communicating with parents entails assertiveness as well as conveying information to make a connection with parents. To parents it suggests that, in contrast to their children, the school tolerates their breaking the codes of acceptable social behaviours.
Schools could stretch the boundaries of parental consultation and forcefully ask these parents for the same positive behaviour they consistently strive to get from their children.
The "open door" policy that formerly embraced parents is now replaced by security signs insisting "all visitors report to reception". Yet parent power is stronger than ever.
Parents expect teachers to ingratiate themselves and to be chirpy and approachable at all times. But, like parents, teachers are not a homogenous group. There are the keen, motivated and talented, but also the jaded, uninspiring and defensive. And even the most gifted teacher can lack vital communication skills.
We need training. The 5-14 English language guidelines now provide a variety of talking and listening experiences, but it will be 10 years before any of these children are teachers. Communication skills should be part of both initial and regular in-service training. This would ensure that parents and teachers are, at the very least, listening to each other and talking the same language.