Parents' evenings can be a mixed blessing for all concerned. Some parents look forward to an evening with baby sitters in place when they can talk to the teachers and reflect over a drink afterwards. Others dread the pressure of the hurried timetable, the queues, the sense of déjà vu and not really knowing what to say. But rest assured, teachers have a mixed view of it too. Whilst staff normally do a good job preparing for their very short meeting with you, how can you make the most of the time?
As with all meetings, it makes sense to prepare. Try asking your child what he or she expects the teachers to say. Some children are unforthcoming; others are ready to provide a detailed description of the merits, quirks and hilarious habits of each teacher. Make a note of the teachers who stand out as inspirational; it can only help to provide credit where it's due and teachers respond as well as any of us to praise and encouragement.
Whether or not you can extract a pre-briefing from your child, take a look at the exercise books and notice the marking comments and grades. Does your child feel that these marks are fair? Later, you can ask the teacher how these marks compare to the cohort but do remember that if yours is an academically selective school, your child might be doing very well indeed despite not being at the top of the class. A balanced and realistic view is required at all times.
When the day dawns, some parents feel a sense of back-to-school dread and fear of the small wooden chair. Such events can be yet more difficult for the separated parents who attend together. So set out with a team mindset if at all possible – you are all in this together and you all want the best for your child. The teachers have seen this before: what are their views of your child's journey through education and can they comfortably predict a trajectory? What do they recommend in terms of how you proceed together? What are they already doing to engage your child? Centre your conversation. Remember: it's all about the child.
Parents' evenings provide an opportunity to test assumptions that we have about our child's progress. Sometimes it is difficult not to take criticism personally and one must maintain a sense of perspective. You want to know where your child is doing well and how he or she can improve in areas that don't come so naturally. Importantly, does your child maintain a positive attitude at school and is he or she developing resilience, sociability and other life skills? There might not be grades for this, but academic progress sits alongside personal development and I recommend taking a moment to ensure that both behaviour and academic attainment feature in every conversation.
See it as your role to ensure that the teachers are aware of your child's special interests and particular needs. As a parent, you have entered into a pact with the school so that you and the teachers can work together in a coordinated approach, nurturing and coaxing each child along his or her journey to adulthood. Developing and maintaining a positive understanding and a practical working relationship with the school helps, particularly when things threaten to go wrong. Don't be afraid to be memorable but please don't be the loud, cross, overbearing parent who barges the queues and struggles to keep his or her temper. You will not help anyone by losing your cool. Ask for a follow-up meeting another time, somewhere private, if you have a deeper concern.
If you do have a criticism or concern to air, aim to couch it in supportive language: an issue is on your mind, can the teacher please help? You've heard some stories and are unsure whether they are true? Would the teacher watch out for the following issue and report back in three weeks? Work with the staff and not against them. You will receive far better 'customer care' if you are easy to deal with and avoid blame. All parties share the best interests of the child and that's what you must focus on.
It is becoming increasingly common that children, as they become older, are invited to join in with parents' evenings. If your child is invited, decide together in advance how you are going to handle this. It could be excruciating when it ought to be enlightening, so set some rules to help both sides. You are the grown up and the role model, respecting teachers' professional opinions and demonstrating the importance of education.
You might have a child who affects disinterest in the entire parents' evening process – or one who paces around nervously until your return, desperate to hear when he or she is to be expelled. However they choose to react, do make a point of feeding back to your child the highs and lows of your evening. Remember your child's particular sensitivities appropriately when you feed back. You might need to ensure that he or she understands the need to apply himself or herself or merely provide reassurance that all is well in order to allay anxieties.
Flattery will get you everywhere if it is authentic and deserved. Your role is to work with the staff, not against them. These people are influential in the world of the school and that matters very much to your child. Help them to do their best. Make the most of your few minutes per teacher. Appreciate that they are up against the clock and see what you can usefully learn and take away. Check your assumptions, try to listen openly and without defensiveness and if the teachers have only good things to say, rejoice!