Many parents greet the ritual of the parent-teacher evening with a mixture of dread and anticipation. It may well be a bit of a maelstrom and you may feel that time is too short or massively curtailed, but at least you will have an opportunity to discuss your child’s progress and get to know teaching staff a bit better.
Given the time pressures, you will need to maximise the value of your 10–15-minute slot. This means asking sensible questions, listening carefully to what the teacher has to say, and avoiding getting side-tracked into fascinating, but irrelevant, conversational cul-de-sacs. You should also see parents’ evenings as another opportunity to meet and get to know fellow parents, which will be beneficial to your child’s social life. It is very important that you observe the social niceties, and don’t get incensed by teachers over-running or bad queuing etiquette. You don’t want to get a reputation as the stroppy parent who always makes a scene on these occasions.
We’ve put together some advice for navigating these important occasions:
You will need to follow the school’s advice and guidance on this. Many primary schools prefer to see parents alone, and if you have to bring your child along, they may well be able to play with their classmates while you chat. Some secondary schools encourage parents to bring their children, as they feel that participating in the conference encourages them to take responsibility for their own educational progress and priority-setting.
These events, especially in secondary schools, are highly orchestrated and their success is completely dependent on parents cooperating and following guidelines. While at primary school, you will only need to attend one meeting with your child’s class teacher, at secondary school you may have a long list of teachers to see, especially if your child is doing GCSEs. You will be able to book slots ahead and it is very important that you try to stick to them, and don’t encourage the teacher to overrun their allotted time slot when they’re seeing you. Once the booking system gets out of kilter, there will be all sorts of knock-on effects, and the whole event will become stressful.
Inevitably, there will be timetabling glitches, even in the best-run events and you will need to keep calm and flexible. If you arrive late at your meeting, through no fault of your own, barging up to the teacher and demanding that you be seen immediately, even if other parents are already in consultation, is unacceptable. You will have to sit it out, wait patiently; if there are two of you, you might need to split up to maintain your evening’s timetable. It’s very frustrating but shouting at teachers or berating other parents is counter-productive and may cause your child acute embarrassment.
Once you are seated opposite the teacher, you may feel that you have been given a carte blanche to discuss your favourite subject, your child. But you are at the school to discuss educational and social progress, not to indulge in meandering digressions your child’s eating, sleeping or tv habits. You might find this kind of discussion endlessly fascinating, but the teacher will be champing at the bit, anxious to get on to the evening’s main business.
Some parents find it helpful to jot down questions before the parents' evening, which will help ensure they remain focussed. Try to avoid asking general, open questions of the “how is Jamie getting on?” variety. Instead, keep the conversation focused by asking questions like “is Jamie on target/meeting expectations/working at above or below average?” If you have specific concerns (reading ability, focus in class etc), now is the time to raise them. It is also a good idea to ask about your child’s learning behaviour: does he/she participate fully in class discussions, appear engaged and interested? or, is he or she non-engaged, fidgety and distracted? If the latter is the case, ask the teachers about ways this can be addressed.
Here are some useful questions:
Is my child progressing in line with the school’s expectations?
What can he or she do to improve?
Is there anything he or she does particularly well or badly?
How much time should homework take?
Does he or she contribute in lessons?
How does my child get along with classmates?
What can I do to help?
We are all prone to judging our own children in relation to their contemporaries. It is very common for parents to ask how their child is doing compared to other classmates, in effect to ask for their class ranking. Teachers will not engage in this kind of discussion, so don’t waste their time.
Now is a good time – especially if your child has just started school or is in primary school – to check that they have settled in, are behaving well, making friends, socialising successfully. It can be very hard to get reliable answers to these questions from the child and you need to be observant about their social progress so that any problems can be nipped in the bud.
Teachers move in a world that is full of acronyms, mysterious grading systems and jargon-filled discourse. You are not an educational expert and may feel baffled and alienated by some of the terminology the teacher uses. If that is the case, just ask for an explanation. You are not expected to know these things, and teachers can easily get carried away and forget that you are very unlikely to do so.
‘Helicopter’ parents, who anxiously supervise every aspect of their child’s school life, or ‘tiger’ parents, who are fiercely ambitious for their children, can be the bane of teachers’ lives. Instead of arriving at the consultation with an open mind, they turn up with an agenda, make tyrannical demands, take copious notes. They lay down the law, rather than listening carefully and sensitively to what they are being told, and teachers feel patronised and disrespected.
If you know that your child is enjoying school, or is stimulated by a certain teacher’s lessons, take the trouble to say so. Parent-teachers’ evenings are exhausting for teachers, who will feel dispirited by a ceaseless barrage of questions and demands. Teachers are only human; they appreciate positive approbation.
If you have criticisms of the school, the teaching, negative feedback about the classroom dynamic, the workload etc., this is not really the forum for a full discussion. You can certainly indicate that you are dissatisfied or concerned, and then ask if it would be possible to schedule a meeting at another time to discuss these issues. Whatever you do, don’t manifest any aggression towards the teacher in question – you will be labelled as a troublemaker, and the teacher will become defensive and uncommunicative. Approach all problems with an “I’m sure if we put our heads together, we can work it out” mentality.
Inevitably you will find yourself sitting next to other parents as you wait for your consultation sessions. Now is the time to be sociable and friendly. Chat with other parents but keep it light – don’t immediately dive into in-depth criticisms of the school or the teachers (which other parents may find alienating). Try and avoid talking about your children’s progress; if you start swapping notes with other parents, you could fall into the boasting trap, or needlessly feed your own insecurities about your child’s progress. Be discreet and save these questions for the teacher.
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