Seven suggestions of things to try from a teacher’s perspective
Introduction – ‘The Mysterious Black Box’
When you fill in your school application form for your child there is a nervous couple of months wait as school places are allocated. You fill in the form, you send it off, it enters a metaphorical ‘black box’ and then you sit and hope for the desired result.
Whatever happens, whichever school your child is allocated to, you are about to start the same journey again – only this time, it is not a form you are sending off, it is your child. In a way, it is what you do every morning. You send your child off to school, they enter the ‘black box’ and you hope that when they come home, you are happy with the result.
It is a ‘black box’ because it is unknown. You will never know more than a fraction of what goes on in the building. You will never know more than a tiny percentage of the interactions your child has in a day. Even the most engaged parent will only ever know the very basics.
What this means is, at some point, no matter which school your child is allocated, you will probably encounter an issue which makes want to find out more about what is happening with your child’s education.
Of course, there will be structured times to do this such as Parents’ Evenings, but these are usually rushed affairs and usually only take place once a year. There will be many occasions when you want to deal with a problem and this will require you to make contact with the school. Similarly, you may have been contacted by the school to come in for a meeting.
In my 15 years experience as a teacher and school leader I have had many meetings with parents. I would like to share my top seven tips for how best to approach these meetings and four things that you should try to avoid.
One: Make a Plan
One of the most useful things we learnt during NCT and Hypnobirthing sessions before the birth of our son was to complete a ‘birth plan’. What we found useful about the experience was not that we had the exact birth we had wanted (birthing pool, LED candles and Chopin) but rather we had thought-though as a couple all of the different situations we might encounter.
This allowed us to visualise lots of different options and ensure that, as a couple, we had time to discuss these issues away from, and before, the high-pressure environment of needing to act. When we had the emergency C-section after 48 hours on a hospital ward, we had already run that scenario through in our minds beforehand, allowing us to approach the situation (slightly) more calmly.
What these might mean in a school context, is perhaps having a structured conversation as a family about some of the most common issues which might arise and discussing how you all might react and course of action each person might take. This doesn’t mean that you will never encounter these problems, but if you do, at least you will have had a starting conversation to help plan the next steps. Whenever you decide to speak to the school, it might be a good idea to consult with your child first (more on this later…)
Two: Build a relationship before there is an issue
This will come as a shock to most young people, but teachers are actually complex, emotional humans – the same as everyone else. If you can, it is usually helpful to build relationships with teachers on a human level – building up a good bank of trust both ways.
If your child is about to start primary school, this may be easier as you will likely be able to have informal chats with the class teacher during pick-ups and drop-offs. At secondary school, this will be more challenging, but attending school events, exchanging email addresses and taking any opportunities when you may ‘bump into’ a teacher can be good opportunities to build a trusting relationship. Although some teachers may be a little reluctant to share too much about themselves initially, most will be more than happy to have a good chat.
One parent when I first moved to London got chatting to me about all of the great free things to do in the local area. She also found out I was interested in Russian history. I would regularly get emails from her highlighting things to do – particularly ones related to my interests or to what her child was studying in history. It was super helpful both personally and professionally. This built up a bank of good-will which meant, subconsciously, I was way more likely to help solve problems for this parent (human) compared to the ones who were anonymous or who only contacted me with problems.
Three: Reflect – let it breathe a little and consider the long term
We have all had days when we come home and moan about a boss or a colleague. Many of us will have had the experience of firing off an email in the heat of the moment. Often, after a night’s sleep and with some time to process it, we see the situation in a different, calmer, light. We might even have a little regret for the way we acted or the tone of the email we sent. The same is often true of ‘worries’. We often spend a long time worrying about an up-coming situation that, when it happens, is not as bad as we thought – even, it turns out to be a positive experience.
This can be the same when your child comes home angry or upset about something which happened at school, or if they seem worried about an upcoming event. I completely understand the urge as a parent to want to do everything you can to help your child in this situation, but one of the best ways to help might actually be to offer comfort and then let the issue breath for a day or two. You may find that the issue has resolved itself naturally. These can also be really good moments to teach your child about how to deal with issues for themselves. This will, after all, be something they have to deal with independently in the near future.
Talking of the future, opinions and people do change overtime. The teacher that your child ‘hates’ in year seven might actually be their favourite teacher by year eleven (this is actually quite common). The teacher who they think is too strict might end up being the teacher they credit with teaching them the most important life-lessons later on. The new teacher who is struggling to manage behaviour will be getting support and will be getting more effective after each lesson and each hour teaching. Consider what long term relationship damage might be done if you intervene before letting the situation play out.
A tool you could use before rushing to arrange a meeting is your ‘BRAIN’:
B – Benefits – What positives am I hoping to achieve?
R – Risks – What might go wrong?
A – Alternatives – What else could I do to help solve the issue? Or, help my child solve it for themselves
I – Intuition – What do I feel about this? What if this were me? Also, is my emotion clouding my logic and long-term thinking?
N – Nothing – what will happen if you choose this option?
This may help structure your thoughts or discussions.
Of course, it is worth noting that if the problem relates to safeguarding or serious risk you should act immediately. However, in my time in schools, whilst these issues do occur, they happen very infrequently.
Four: Arrange a meeting
A large proportion of the impromptu meetings teachers have with parents are when the parents come to the school office at the end of the school day (for students). The front office will then likely call or send an email saying something like: ‘Hi (teacher’s name), there is an angry parent here who wants to speak to you…’
Firstly, to dispel a common misconception, a teacher’s day does not end when the students go home. Far from it. So this teacher now needs to leave whatever task they were in the middle of (marking, inputting data, running revisions, department meeting, curriculum planning, line management etc.) and come to deal with a problem.
Secondly, put yourself in that teacher’s shoes. Most people want to do a good job and be seen to be doing a good job. This teacher is already feeling super defensive – ‘what have I done?!’ On top of this, they now have the added feeling of judgement – ‘oh no, everyone in the office must think I am a terrible teacher!’ If this is the frame of mind the teacher is in when they meet a parent who is full of emotion because they want to ‘protect’ their child, you can see how things might not get off on the right foot.
Finally, the teacher is walking into the meeting with no idea of the issue – in many cases, not even knowing which child! Secondary teachers may teach hundreds of pupils in a week. This makes it difficult to provide all of the information a parent may be looking for.
A few things you can do to help have effective meetings are:
If you can, contact the teacher by email. Most schools have this on the website, but a quick call to the office should do it if not. Explain who you are, the context and arrange a date and time to meet.
It might also be worth asking if there might be a member of staff who has more control over the situation could join or take the meeting instead. There are lots of staff in schools and different teachers have different responsibilities:
- The school SENCO might be the person to meet with if there is an issue with Special Educational Needs or inclusion
- The head of a department (secondary) might be the person to contact if you have any issues with curriculum
- A member of the pastoral team, such as a head of year (secondary) may be the best person to deal with issues such as behaviour or bullying
Five: Remember the human
This point is both simple and profound. Teachers are human beings with complex lives. The teacher you are speaking to will almost certainly be nervous about meeting you, feeling insecure about how well they are doing the job and perhaps upset they have done something which may have had a negative effect on a child. They may not show they are feeling this way, but there is a good chance they are.
Plus, like everyone else, they may have had a bad day, made a mistake or be dealing with complex issues outside of work. Having line managed many teachers in my career, I can assure you that many teachers are great at showing up at work and putting on a brave face – despite facing enormous challenges outside of school.
Six: Keep an open mind and think forward
No parent will ever truly understand how their child behaves in school. One thing which will almost certainly be true is they will act differently to how you think! School is a social environment with lots of other young people, different adults and different expectations. This means that whatever issue you have with a school, it is worth seeing the initial meeting as a chance to find out more information. You may very well hear the teacher’s perspective and leave feeling very differently to how you went in.
If not, no one, not even Ofsted, can change the past. This means that even if there is a disagreement about a situation which has already happened, in many cases, this is irrelevant anyway – what matters is what happens next. Unless you feel an apology is necessary (why? What would that achieve?) It is helpful if you can steer the meeting away from what has happened, to what should happen in the future.
I would also think about helping to set some manageable actions, milestones or targets to measure if anything is changing (either getting worse or improving). This can help keep things feeling positive too – no one likes to dwell on the past.
Seven: Arrange another meeting and say ‘thank you’!
Finally, at the end of the meeting, it is good to get another time in the diary to check-in. This gives both sides some confidence as it sets out a nice time-frame when you know you will meet again.
If, when you meet again, things have improved, it sounds obvious, but thank the teacher. There have been many occasions in my career when I have worked really hard to solve a problem raised by a parent – then not heard from them again. It is very rare for teachers to be thanked for the work they do (particularly secondary school teachers)
Finally, whatever has happened, try to end the meeting on a positive note. I am a firm believer that almost everyone wants to do well and kindness goes further than anger.
All humans are bags of emotion who fear negative judgement. I don’t think I have ever met a teacher who wakes up in the morning wanting to do a bad job or upset children. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but it does mean there is always a way forward. Almost all teachers say they got into teaching to help make a positive difference to children’s lives. That includes your child too. You might not always agree on the right way to do this – is there a right way? – but it does mean that there is huge scope for parents and teachers to build trusting relationships and work as part of the same team, to help educate your child. It just needs a bit of work to make this happen effectively and to help make what happens in the ‘black box’ a little less mysterious.
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