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Thursday, 17 October 2019

We’re waiting in the corridor, My dad, my mum and me...

If you spotted that my title this week was the opening lines of Allan Ahlberg's fantastic poem 'I'm Waiting in the Corridor', then you get all the bonus points (I hope you're keeping track of your score).  I saw a request for advice on parents' evenings for newbies and I thought to myself: heck, I've done loads of them in the past.  Let's have a stab at it.

I'll aim to cover some of the more awkward/uncomfortable questions and ways to either skirt around them or answer them honestly but sensitively.  I am not saying that I am right in my approaches - I know several people who think I am a little too dismissive of parents - I'm just saying that I have about a 95% success rate at keeping my parent/teacher meetings at or under 10 minutes, and have always come away from the evening(s) unscathed.  

Unless you count the on-going debate of where the apostrophe goes (for me, the evening belongs to all the parents, so I make it a possessive plural but you do you (or, probably more accurately, you do your Head/Principal!).  I've had some very heated conversations about that.  #KeepingItReal!

A quick Google search (or, indeed, an Ecosia search, if you're concerned about the trees) will return a lot of websites about parent-teacher evenings, each with their own list of Dos and Don'ts.  So I'm not going to make those kinds of suggestions here.  Except to say that they almost all say that you absolutely must be thoroughly prepared; many of them advocate writing a little report on each child.  

Don't do that.  My post last week was all about unnecessary tasks that add to an already exhaustive workload (read it if you haven't already; it's good!).  This is one of them.  You know these children already.  Your job is to talk about them.  You do not need to write a report.  If the parents want something to take away with them, provide paper and pens and invite them to make notes (or even record the meeting; you're not going to say anything incriminating).  Don't waste your time on a report.  If you have a Headteacher or Principal who is insisting on it, direct them to this NUT report (p.26, point #63).

One more bit of context before I get into the meat of it this week.  I have been a Year 6 (5th Grade) teacher for pretty much my whole career.  I bring this up because, at that age, I rarely see the parents in the playground as the children tend to come to school and go home on their own.  So, if you are a younger-years teacher, you may have to adjust any advice (I mean, that's a good idea anyway; we're all different).

Preparation

As I said, this need not be onerous.  Have your books ready (get the children to do this at the end of the day, don't spend your own time on it!); ideally, they are marked up to date according to your school's policy but realistically, they won't be.  Don't panic, we'll get to that later.  Just make sure they are there.

I have created (and used) a Pupil Reflection sheet that you can give to the class.  This covers positives and concerns from the children's perspective.  It also provides you with the names of the parents right next to the names of the child (extremely useful).  Plus, you can call it Handwriting or PSHCe, so it can be done in class.  Boom, you now have 30 reports without lifting a pen.

I have a very handy list of emerging and expected end-of-year outcomes for Years 1-6, which make for very handy quick-target sheets.  You can get them here.  I have sometimes printed one out for each parent and a rough guide to the year.  Depending on the child, I would say that the emerging targets should be met my Christmas - February and the expected targets by May-June.

Make sure you have a copy of your appointments.  Do not rely on the office staff, they have too much to do.  I am quite pedantic, so I write mine up on a Google sheet and alternate the colours (I also provide a column for attendance) and make sure I have at least two copies with me.

Finally, if you have any important letters to hand out, have them to hand and be ready to tick that parents have received them.  These meetings are a great time to update your school's GDPR and media consent forms.

The Meeting: Greetings!

I used to be a firm believer in keeping the child away from the room during the meeting.  It was, after all, a parents' evening.  However, this is nuts; don't do it.  You want the kid in the room.  It is often very helpful to tell the parents that you need their child to do their reading/times tables/homework in front of the child.  I think this for two reasons.  1) There can be no recourse of 'I didn't know; my parents didn't tell me' 2) It is sometimes not the fault of the child.  I have had situations where parents have told their children to not do the reading I had set for them in favour of reading a religious text for 2 hours every night.  That's an extreme example, but I'm sure you can think of other instances where you have actually needed to tell the parents off for something.  This can be done very gently by reinforcing the rules through the child in a friendly and caring way.

I am a little concerned because Jimmy doesn't seem to be keeping up with his reading.  At his age, it is really important, so if you can keep nagging him at home.  I'm sure you do!  But maybe we need to up the encouragement.  Where does he do his reading?  

I love this sort of questioning.  I got it from a Darren Brown book on cold reading.  By pre-supposing an answer (he reads in x location) you remove any direct accusation while keeping the get him to bloody well read message subtly intact.  

Then you turn to the child and say something like:

And you can help by leaving your reading record out, open and filled in so that all mum or dad needs to do in the morning is sign it.  Parents are busy people, you know.

The number of times I have received reassured smiles from children from this sort of line...  It's our job to inform the parents.  It is more our job to help the children get the most out of their education.  Sometimes this means manipulating carers.

Anyway, I was talking about greetings.  Stand up to say hello.  I'm not a hand-shaker as a rule (I'm more of a hugger... but that can be frowned upon!) but I offer a hand to shake for both mum and dad.  We're all equals here with one goal; pleasantly educate the child.  Also, don't be afraid to check whose parents they are.  It doesn't make you an uncaring teacher.  Quite the opposite.  I often refer to my appointment list and say something like:

Lilly's parents, yes?  I want to make sure I tick the right people off!

They don't expect you to know what they look like - they don't know what you look like after all.  It took me about three years to pluck up the courage to check who I was talking to.  Before that, I genuinely spent a whole 10 minutes discussing the wrong child!  I did this by avoiding proper nouns, and being incredibly general.  I don't recommend it.  Far better to have a few seconds of potential awkwardness but get the right kid.

Oh, about the list of appointments... Don't stick to the order.  People come to these things expecting to be held up.  If you see a parent waiting, especially if you know it can be a quick they're doing fine; they're wonderful; I want 30 of them, then let those people skip the queue.  I know it sounds crazy, but it'll save you so much time.

The Meeting: First things first...

Before you say anything, anything at all, ask them:

Is there anything you would like to ask?  Any issues or concerns you want to raise before I get into it?  We only have 10 minutes and I want to make sure you get what you need!

It sounds very uncaring and sterile on paper but, let's face it, it's what they're there for.  It will shape the rest of your meeting with them.  It's also how I have managed to send parents away, very happy, after only three minutes.

It also tells the parents that you are not afraid to talk to them.  By giving them the lead you have already asserted your control over not only the meeting but also the room and the learning.  You are the authority figure and you have answers if they have questions.  Bring it on.  

Most of the time you will get a reply along the lines of 'oh no, not really, just, is Sally doing well; is she happy?'  This is your ideal situation because the parents just want reassurance that what Sally says happens at school paints an accurate picture.  Sally is clearly talking about school a lot; these people are already hip to the school jive (because I'm not sure if I'm allowed to use the term 'woke' in this context).  

Unless you as a teacher have anything pressing to say, tell them their child is wonderful and send them away.  More on the goodbyes later.

If you get the parents who bring out their laundry list of complaints, that's fine.  Listen.  But listen to understand.  Don't interrupt them, even if they are simply ranting.  Let them rant.  They want to be heard.  When they are finished, say:

Is that everything?

Don't say it sarcastically.  And don't make the mistake of being flippant with a jovial-but-well-meant 'goodness, is there anything we're doing right?'  Does not help.  Believe.  But checking that they are finished reinforces the idea that you are listening to them.  If you think they may have taken offence, clarify by saying that you want to make sure you're not missing anything important.

The very next thing you HAVE to say is:

Thank-you.  That's really useful to know.

Even if it isn't.  That's what these parents need to hear.  You want them onside.  If the problems raised are the fault of the child (behaviour, attitude, ability), and the child is there, ask them what they think of it.  Ask:

Is there anything I could be doing to help that I'm not doing?

It can feel a little irksome to do this, but we're only human; we may well have missed something.  Reassure the parents that, now you are aware of the situation, you'll take steps to rectify it and give them a follow-up date.  This doesn't have to be another meeting.  But by saying 'we'll have a chat in the playground around the end of the next half-term and see how things are going', you reunify the team.  They feel listened to.  The child feels safe again.  You become the hero of the piece.  The next few weeks will be fine.  Catch the parents in the playground (if you can) and smile at them with a questioning thumbs-up (the whole world doesn't need to know after all, and playgrounds are gossipy places).  Show that you have listened and that you care.


The great thing with these sorts of complaints is that they take up ten minutes all on their own.  The parents couldn't care less about the books or the progress.  You get to end the meeting on good terms.

You might get the parents who have decided that you are not pushing their child enough.  Throw it right back at them:

What does Alex enjoy doing at home?  There is a great website that would certainly stretch their brain a little more... I'll give them the address tomorrow.  Also, what are they reading at the moment?  The books we have at school are a little limited, I'm afraid.  I can recommend [insert book title here], maybe they could visit the library and borrow it?  Or get them a kindle for their birthday?  Another thing I can recommend - it's a little strange - get them to listen to Radio 4 at 6:30pm for half an hour.  

Bombard them with options.  Not to shut them up but, again, to reassure them that you care about how talented their child is.  The reality is that you can't suddenly invent resources in the school.  You will already be differentiating the work and chances are the parents don't understand Mastery of a subject, resulting in them disappointed that young Alex isn't learning differential calculus at age 9.  Explain the situation and direct them to the NRICH website.

That Radio 4 thing is genuine, by the way.  It's their evening comedy slot and it's great for those children who need a bit of stretching.  

The other thing that might come up is bullying.  The problem here is that parents do not understand what bullying is.  I bluntly state that it is an unhelpful word to use because it has a very specific definition (behaviour or attention that is deliberate, sustained and intended to cause physical, psychological or emotional pain).  Parents have no problems recognising the 'deliberate' and 'intended' parts but they often neglect the 'sustained' part.  Let them know you'll look into it (and do, it has to be genuine) but never discuss other children:

That's awful and I can totally see why you're upset/frustrated by it.  Obviously, I can't discuss other children here, in the same way, that I wouldn't discuss your child with other parents, but we will definitely have a circle time session about being more friendly to each other.  

If they are still dissatisfied, invite them to discuss it with the Head.  You've done all you can do for the time being.

There is also the chance that you knew nothing about the situation because the child hasn't told you.  Be honest and upfront about it.  Ask the kid why they didn't tell you.  Similarly, if you know the hidden other side of the story, tell the parents.  Invite the child to tell them first but if they don't then make sure that everyone knows all the details.

The Send Off!

Make sure you can see a clock.  Don't be afraid to have your watch or phone facing you.  I've known people set timers.  I've written a lot already, so I'll distil this down to three situations.

1) The easy g'bye

Well, that's everything I have to say.  I could carry on but I would only be repeating myself.  (S)He's a wonderful child and I'm happy to have him/her in the class.  Whatever you're doing at home, keep doing it!  Right, I don't want to take up anymore of your time; you're busy people.  Thanks so much for coming in and [child] I'll see you tomorrow.

Hands are shaken, smiles are worn.  Happy days.

2) The protracted farewell

(Stand up - this in important) I think we've covered the main issues/concerns.  Unfortunately I have another parent waiting very patiently.  Leave it all with me, thank again for letting me know.  I'll definitely keep you informed of the progress we make.  (To child) And I will see you tomorrow, hopefully with a smile on your face?  Don't forget to do your reading/homework/what your parents tell you; we're all on your side, don't forget.  (To parents - shaking hands) Thanks again for coming in.

It might feel like a shake-off.  But that's because it is.  If you don't have another appointment immediately afterwards, leave the room.  Go for a comfort break.  Don't hang around.

3) Bye, Felicia!

I think we need to give this more time.  We really can't resolve [the situation] in a 10-minute interview and I agree, it needs resolving.  Call into the office tomorrow morning and arrange a time after school when we can meet a little more formally and give it the attention it deserves.  There will also be fewer ears around.  Thanks for bringing to my attention and for coming in - it must have been quite awkward for you.  Genuinely though, thank-you.  It's good to know that we are a team. (To the child) Don't talk about this to people in the playground, okay, because it's a serious matter.  We'll sort it out, your parents and me [NEVER 'I'], but it might take some time.  I'll see you tomorrow buddy/pal/sweetheart/slugger/whatever endearing nickname you have for your children.

This one is rare but it does the job.  The follow-up rate from the parents is less than you would expect but it might be a good idea to let your SLT know of the situation before they are told by someone else.

Parents Who Miss It?

Very briefly because we're all busy (and some of us are hungry).  You have your very helpful appointment sheet - draw a picture of a phone next to those parents who didn't show up.  The sooner you can call them (or email if your school will allow it) the better.  You need to have a conference with these people; they don't have to be in the room.  I had a parent once who had to have their parent-teacher meeting via PlayStation Network Messenger.  It was unorthodox, but it worked.

I hope this has been useful.  I quite enjoy parents' evenings.  Never forget that you and the children are on the same team.  It's not always the same team and you and parents either.  You see the kids more than you see the parents; help them out where you can.  Oh, also place some orders.  I have always told my children that parents' evenings make me thirsty and hungry and that I like Dr Pepper and Twix bars.  

The little angels bring them in (much to their parents' confusion)!

Be gentle to yourselves and smile at at least three strangers.  You just might make their day!

Carl Headley-Morris


I have written a pack of 'Super Challenging' English comprehension papers!  They are part of the SVR Education set, which has material covering English and maths from Year 1 all the way up to Year 9.  

You can view them and buy them here or directly from www.svreducation.co.uk.  You can also WIN yourself a set (of the Super Challenging) by following me on Twitter, retweeting the link to the pack and leaving a comment.  I'll open that out to this blog as well.  Subscribe and comment for a chance to win!

Competition closes on Friday 25 October.

Thanks for reading!

@Mr_M_Musings            tragiclantern@gmail.com           bit.ly/carlslearningplace

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