I’ve sat on both sides of the Parents’ Evening table and understand the curious state of nervousness it can invoke. The very fact that we so often set up the room sitting across desks makes for a somewhat unusual two-sided interaction. On the teachers’ side there’s often a nervous anticipation of personal criticism for not having fully got the measure of their child and not meeting their needs. On the parents’ side there’s an anxious sense of being judged for any slight flaw in your child’s character, for not being quite the perfect parent, or just dreading to hear about some embarrassing misdemeanour your beloved child has kept from you!
This bi-annual moment of theatre brings into sharp focus, in a far too shallow encounter, the vital importance of the home-school relationship. The individuals gathered around the desk for this characteristically awkward encounter, determine the quality of life experience of each child and young person for the vast majority of their waking hours. And yet, just like with 5 minute GP consultations, we run late, we rush the discussion, we fill the time making somewhat defensive mini speeches and, so often, leave feeling that there must be a better way.
I recall three bizarre encounters in my very first Parents Evening that left a strong impression and shaped my understanding as a young teacher of how to approach this conversation with parents. As a nervous NQT I’d duly set all of the appointments and even laid out the students’ exercise books in the room from which I’d planned to illustrate each carefully prepared point. But then my best laid plans were made irrelevant by these three particular families.
The parents of one boy arrived 30 minutes early and, while waiting, they previewed their son’s exercise books. When their appointment arrived they displayed a high level of agitation and then consumed almost every available moment to point out inaccuracies in my marking and to appeal for extra marks or better grades for their son’s work. They used the conversation as an opportunity to challenge the classroom institutions and to destabilise me in my role as any kind of expert in their son’s life. I was completely flummoxed!
Having barely had time to recover, the calm environment was later shattered by the incoming hullaballoo of a mum with four young children in tow. “I’m sorry I had to bring them with me. Their Dad’s having to work double shifts to get by at the moment and I’ve nobody to look after them. I wasn’t going to come, I hate these things, I was never any good at school, but I want things to be better for these young uns. I can’t do much to help and I don’t really understand all you’re learning her with these new-fangled methods, but I tell her to work hard in her classes. Is she doing okay?” My meagre words in those next five minutes felt like but a drop in the ocean. All my hard work and professional expertise paled into insignificance when stood alongside the remarkable achievements of this dedicated cash-strapped family to shape their young lives.
Later the same evening I was dreading the appointment with another family. Dad was well-known locally for his combative, challenging style as chief negotiator for a teacher’s union. Given that my entire brief career to this point had been served in the heat of a major, national dispute between teachers and the government, he was notorious for his venom and vitriol. He strode up confidently for the appointment, taking charge of the discussion before he had even sat down, and plonked a bottle of rather nice red wine in front of me. “Well, he’s really happy and loves being in your class. I know he can be a bit of a lazy bugger sometimes so don’t hold back on my account. I know he’s bright enough so I assume he’s getting on okay and, even if he’s not, there’s always plenty of time. Thanks for all you’re doing and I hope you’re enjoying it here, it’s a good school. I guess you’ll get in touch if there’s anything important to talk about. Thank you. Have you got anything to tell us?” “Well,” I spluttered, “no, not really. Would you like me to talk you through some of his work?” “Nah. I can see he’s developing okay and most of all, he’s happy. Thanks!” And with that, he stood, turned and left! I was left flummoxed once again!
Years later, as a parent, I found myself approaching my Parents’ Evening appointment with similar trepidation but carrying a different bag of nerves. By now I had realised how futile my clumsy attempts had been as a new teacher to manage these discussions to tackle the detail of educational progress. What was it really for? What should we be trying to achieve in these few moments?
Yes, it is a conversation about educational progress, but time prevents it being any more than summary headlines… “get in touch if there’s anything important”. Although part of my mission as teacher is to cover a curriculum and micro-manage each pupil’s progress, Parents’ Evening is not the moment to demonstrate professional prowess or demand accountability to such a narrow agenda. And it’s certainly not a time for position-taking or playing mind games. My best encounter as a parent was with the teacher who set up the discussion “How can we best work together with your child this year to help them do well and stay happy?” Because, at the end of the day, that’s all I really wanted. Do Well. Be Happy.
My mission as parent is not measured in lessons, school terms and exam grades. These are but clumsy indicators of ‘doing well’. My mission is at least 20 years long, and in many ways longer still. The focussed work of schools, of individual teachers, of each course of lessons, are tiny pieces in my 1000+ piece parenting jigsaw puzzle. Yes, very important to complete the picture, but not so important that we lose perspective and focus just on these pieces without seeing the overall work. It is when the teacher-parent partnership is mutually respectful of this wider context that it flourishes most. Learning how best to work together to push or to pull, to encourage or to admonish, to excite or to calm, to manage or to leave alone, to narrow down or to set free – all to achieve the right balance of ‘doing well and being happy’.
As I learnt as a teacher to see my work in these terms and learnt to submit my Parents’ Evenings to this lifetime mission and not overstate my importance, so I guess I grew to appreciate in just one more way how teaching truly is the best job in the world.
by Peter Chilvers, SDSA