I’d finished talking to a Year 10 girl and her mum about her progress in my English class for the allotted seven minutes at my first parents’ evening before it became clear that I didn’t even teach her: it was a case of mistaken identity. To be fair, I was very wet behind the ears. Both mum and student were very nice about it, though – I think they just wanted to know where the real English teachers were.
Teachers and parents can be very suspicious of one another at first. Children have a sixth sense and will pick up on this so, unless you’re careful, they will play you and their parents off against one another. Collaboration and communication are your best defences.
Primary teachers will find this easier than secondary teachers. In primary, parents will bring and collect their small children from your classroom door every day. Teachers can therefore talk to them immediately about any concerns, give praise when it is due and share funny anecdotes. Meanwhile, parents of secondary-aged children sometimes slow the car down a little as they drop their kids at the school gates in the morning but that’s about it, so secondary teachers need to work a bit harder.
As an NQT, there is a good chance you'll be younger than a lot of the parents. Don’t be surprised if many have trouble taking someone so young seriously. It’s not a great idea to introduce yourself as “brand new to teaching”. Instead, I’d suggest telling a few white lies. There’s no harm in letting them believe that you’ve worked in loads of schools before (because you have had placements in loads of schools). As for your age, just tell them that you are older than you look and credit Botox.
Make a real and genuine effort
Once you have overcome this first hurdle, make a real and genuine effort in September to establish relationships with the parents of the children you teach. This is one of the most valuable investments of your time that you will make.
Phone calls home are among the most powerful tools a teachers has. A three-minute chat to say, “Hello, I’m your child’s new teacher and I just wanted to let you know she had an amazing lesson today” can brighten a whole family’s day, especially for children not used to praise. A short email home will be similarly well received.
I know an NQT who promised that he would phone home to the parents of every child in his class who had worked well. He spent nearly two hours on the phone after school speaking with more than 60 surprised parents – but, by golly, did it pay off. Every child knew that if they worked hard, their parents would know about it and would be pleased. A word of caution, though: anyone who informs a child that they will be contacting their home – either with a positive or negative message – and then doesn’t follow through, loses credibility. So if you say you’re going to do it, do it.
Dress to impress on parents’ evening
Phone calls aside, your first face-to-face meeting with parents, at least as a secondary teacher, is likely to be at parents’ evening. On these occasions, dress to impress. Smile. Keep it snappy. Make sure you identify the right child – most management information systems (MIS) allow you to print out photos of your pupils and this can be very handy. Never assume that the person in front of you is the parent. It may be a grandparent, aunt or even a sibling. Likewise, never assume that they have the same surname as the child. Again, check the MIS or just say: “Hello, are you Stevie’s mum?”
It is absolutely essential that you remind yourself of all the information about each child before you open your mouth. Telling a parent that their son is bad at spelling when he has dyslexia does nothing to establish a positive relationship. You must ensure that you can speak knowledgeably and with authority about each child, focusing on their learning and identifying next steps to help them progress. You may wish to have some handouts summarising the year ahead, when homework is set, extra books to read and your work email address. It keeps the dialogue going and shows that you care which, in turn, makes parents more likely to trust you.
Frame concerns so they centre on learning
Remember, regardless of your own opinions of a pupil, that child is cherished by his or her parents. They may not be rational if all they ever hear are criticisms or insults.
There is always a way to frame any concern so that it centres on the child’s learning and, if you approach it reasonably, the parents will “side” with you and not with the child. For example, you might say: “Lucas has so much potential but he needs to write his ideas down. I’m going to ask him to stay behind tomorrow and I’ll help him one to one”. Essentially, this is a detention but with better PR. And if there needs to be a harsher conversation with Lucas’ parents, then it should probably be handed up the chain.
Keziah Featherstone is headteacher of the Bridge Learning Campus of Trust in Learning Academies in Bristol. She is also co-founder of #WomenEd and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable