One of the greatest challenges for a new teacher is meeting the parents. Getting to know your students’ families and representing your school can be a nerve-racking experience and it’s something teachers get little training in.
While there’s no definitive guidebook for what not to say and do, I have pulled together some tips, based on my experiences as a coach in schools and a mum. Here’s my advice:
Parental engagement is just part of the job
Being a teacher is not only about teaching; schools actively engage parents, carers and families. Part of your journey to becoming a great teacher is working out how you will manage different parts of the job, and parental engagement is a big part of this.
The most important thing you can do is to recognise working with parents as an opportunity. For me, Thomas Edison’s words nail it: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Don’t take everything your colleagues tell you about your students’ parents at face value – it’s better to draw your own conclusions. See yourself as a detective, collecting evidence and interviewing staff who have worked with the family in the past, but ultimately making up your own mind. Yes, preparation can help, but if you don’t make up your mind you risk letting someone else’s opinion shape your view, which could set the relationship off on the wrong foot.
Instead of echoing the phrases of “difficult parents”, say what you see once you meet them. They may have seemed difficult, but they could have been scared to come into school based on their own childhood experience. Are parents “pushy”, or do they just have high expectations?
When you meet, think about the time and place
Strong headteachers in the most deprived areas are always accessible and have a strong presence at the school gates and in the local community. They ignore labels and create opportunities for informal chats with parents on neutral territory.
New teachers can learn from them. Ask what would work best for the parents and plan a time that suits their timetable too, not just yours. Think about the best environment in which to hold your first face-to-face chat. You may chat at the gate or in a comfortable private area. Give them the best chair (you’d be surprised how little this happens) and turn off the blinking laptop screen. Try to make it feel like a chat about learning, rather than an interrogation.
Put on your listening ears
As a coach, I spend time with teachers exploring the differences between standard 10-minute annual parent evenings and demonstrating you have time for parents. We also discuss the content of conversations: who speaks more? Why should we listen to parents and show we are listening?
Consider how you like to be listened to when you have a problem or concern. We do not like to be dismissed – we like details and solutions. We like to feel we are being supported and can trust the other party. Try to apply these principles with parents.
For example, a parent recently contacted me regarding her summer-born child. She and her husband were concerned about how he would keep up with the older children. In response, they were told: “He will be fine.” The mum felt like her fears were being dismissed and that teacher will now have work extra hard to earn the trust of those parents. Earn parents’ trust early, and you will avoid making it harder work for yourself in the long run.
The basics for your first meeting
Here are a few top tips:
1 Be polite. Stand up and shake hands. Ask how they are. Ensure they feel comfortable – offer them a drink, for example. Take off your jacket to give a “casual” feel. Sit with them, not opposite them.
2 Be prepared to listen. What do they want to discuss? Ask them at the start of the meeting, not at the end.
3 Work in partnership. Help parents to achieve their aims for the meeting, not just yours. Assign responsibility to yourself, them and the student (if appropriate).
4 Ensure you follow up. Sum up the exchange and be ready to set up a subsequent meetings and chats.
5 Keep in touch. Do this in a way that suits the parents, at the time that suits everyone, regularly. If there are ongoing concerns, aim for at best every three weeks, even if it is a quick email or note in the homework diary.
Hopefully you will now feel more confident, prepared and open to opportunities. If you have any other tips to share, please post them below or on Twitter @GuardianTeach.
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How to handle parents: a survival guide for new teachers © Guardian News & Media Ltd