I've attended many parents' evenings during my 12 years as anEnglish teacher. It's an event in my diary that I both dread and look forward to.
The night can be long and tiring, but overall I've found that both parents and teachers benefit enormously from putting a face to the name.
But every once in a while, at the end of one of these nights, there'll be a real blow. A parent will react in a way that leaves me reeling. Often the attacker will sit there nodding until I finish before lashing out with how much their child loved English until I taught it. Sometimes I can see it coming, but frequently, I don't. What I have found is that often the eye-watering onslaught comes from parents who are themselves teachers.
Last night I went to my first parents' evening as a parent. And last night I heard that my five-year-old daughter isn't doing too well. She's a dreamy, sensitive girl who doesn't really understand what school's about.
She'd rather squeeze the glue into her hair than on to the page, and repeating the alphabet or days of the week makes no sense to her. I'm not worried. I know that the morning will come when she won't ask, "Is it Saturday today?"
But when the teacher rolls her eyes and tuts, tells me that my daughter hasn't understood the point of a collage they did last week, all hope vanishes. As she repeats my daughter's name, I feel a tightness in my chest. Because I've been in her position I know that she is talking about the one frustrating child in 30 who is taking up class time by not being able to tie her own shoelaces. But this is my daughter. Before the teacher is even halfway through the first sentence, the despair is so overwhelming I understand why a friend of mine carries a bottle of vodka in her handbag to these events.
It hurts more because I'm a teacher. I can hear the frustration in my child's teacher's voice. I can see the ghost of parents' evenings past. I know what "having trouble with", and "not quite following" means. Not only does it sound like this woman is running down my abilities as a mother; we are also battling this out on a professional level. If I haven't been able to inspire my daughter to learn basic maths or construct a face mask for the class carnival, what have I been doing with my life?
On our way out, another parent asks if I've had a bad night. When I reply "yes", I'm told not to worry, don't listen to them, what do they know? And I wonder. When I was giving my balanced and honest view of a student, I never appreciated what it feels like to be the parent. And especially how difficult it is to hear one's child being criticised.
I've no doubt that parents' evenings are a joy for most. For some, it can be a trial. Parents who don't know what's going on in the educational system might find it a little bewildering, perhaps disheartening. But for those who know exactly what the teacher is getting at, it can be brutal.
Ruby Soames teaches English in Aix-en-Provence, France