Perfect students, Hostile parents, and more. In this episode, Andy and Adam discuss ways the communication can be improved between parents and teachers. What’s the goal of parent-teacher meetings? What feedback is most valuable to hear? Plus, Adam shares what teachers shouldn’t say to parents at Parent’s Evening.
The school of school podcast is presented by:
Subscribe to get the latest The School of School podcasts delivered to your inbox.
Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello, I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast.
Are you a maths teacher looking for this primary school assessment tool that can give you a detailed look into learner or class achievement? With Insights, it's all in one place. Make sense of assessment data so you can strategically plan and teach lessons. Insights. It's assessment for advancement. Visit mathsnoproblem.com/insights for more information.
Welcome back to another episode of the School of School podcast. Andy, there was one part of my job that I have to admit, I tried and tried and tried as a teacher in leadership and I never felt like I got it right, and that's the communication between parents and school. Parents and teachers, parents and leadership, and all those sorts of things. And it wasn't for lack of trying. It wasn't for lack of a load of people trying really hard. Can I just ask you a quick question? Have you ever had a single time, something that stands out and you thought, that was magic. Either, not just what was said that might be nice about your children or something, but... Not just nice actually. That's wrong. But something that stands out and you think that was a really, really good example of communication between school and home.
That's a good question. Yes, really timely, because actually just last night I was talking to my daughter's teachers, so-
So it kind of sticks out. One of the things that I ... I don't know. Honesty, I guess is the most important thing, right? Nobody likes to tell people stuff they don't want to hear, but sometimes just being honest is the best thing. But it's a double-edged sword, because you want to know truth, but sometimes you find out the truth and it really hurts you. And then that's not great either, right? So it is so tricky because there's so much emotional baggage wrapped around it. As a parent, you love your children and you want your children to be doing really well and all that kind of stuff.
And when they're not, and the school teacher tells you that, you're glad that they told you, because now maybe you can do something about it. But you're also devastated, because you want your child to be better, right? So I don't know. I don't think I've ever had a dishonest conversation with a teacher, but sometimes when you look at it with a professional lens on, let's say as an educator... So I don't teach in schools, but I've taught a lot of teachers and I've always been around schools. I haven't taught in schools since the nineties. It's a high anxiety thing for teachers, right?
Yeah. For sure it is. It really is.
Yeah, because you don't know what you're going to get.
No, no. And I think one of the things that you've... just picking up on one of the points about timing, and I think this is probably true of good communication full stop. But I always used to say to teachers, this is when I was in leadership... You have, and it always used to make me chuckle, the parent-teacher consultations or the parent-teacher nights or whatever you want to call them, right? They happen maybe twice a year, something like that. And you get your little snippet of time to hear about your child. I always used to say to the teachers, "Whatever you do, don't drop a bomb in parent's laps. Don't say to them, 'Oh, since the beginning of the year, your child has been going duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh,' and now we're four months down the track. Make sure that you have conversations when anything arises, because you can't just drop and run."
"Hi, Andy. It's really nice to see you. By the way, your son's been doing this and that. That's our time up. So it's been a pleasure. If you wouldn't mind having a chat with him, that'd be cool. We'll see you in about four months time, and hopefully things have been on the mend." You can't do that. I think that whole idea about it being timely is really important. And the implications of it being timely. But what are the top tips... say, what would work for you? I know your children are a wee bit older now, but if we start from primary school, do you think... I mean, there's an obvious difference with the frequency and how often schools contact you. When your children first went... By the way, did they first go to say a primary school in the UK? Is that right?
They did, yeah. In the UK.
So you think reception is probably a lot of communication, eh?
In that sort of year group, you're seeing parents most days. But what worked? What sort of things do you think work?
I'm a bit stunned here, because one, my memory's horrible. So I'm trying to remember all the way back 20 years ago.
Let me rephrase it ever so slightly that might make it easier for you. What I mean is, so you're a busy man. I know that is a statement of fact. So just in terms of the vehicle that's used, are there things that we should be using less, more?
Well, I think what you're kind of implying is the most important thing, which is that there's a regular dialogue going on of some description, even if it's just short, and even it's just affirmation sometimes. I think sometimes we forget to tell people, "Yeah, actually everything's okay. And just keep doing what you're doing, whatever it is. Or if you're not doing anything, then keep not doing anything, because it's working." That's the bit that we often forget. Also, the social aspect, too. Because we forget sometimes how important that is at various different stages, especially if children have done things like just recently changed schools or they're maybe with a different cohort, one that they weren't with before. All their friends and mates are in the other class now.
Those things have a tremendous impact. Or also if your kid gets affiliated with people who might not be the best people for them to be affiliated with because they need to pay more attention. The other kids are doing fine the way they are, but yours needs to pay... It's those kinds of things that we sometimes, I think, forget to talk about. We talk a lot about marks and how they're going to do on the SATs or whatever it is. And for me anyway, that tends to be, I wouldn't say less important, obviously you're worried and you want your kids to do well and if there's something you can do to intervene as a parent, you want to know that. But the social aspect, the emotional aspect of school, we often don't talk enough about. That's just a personal feeling.
No, no, no, no. But I think that's a really good point, because I think that one thing, if I'm reflecting back on and I've probably... I don't know how many parent meetings I've had as a brand new teacher or even as a student-teacher, actually. I think I was involved in some right through to the end of sort of the full time, which is ahead in school. The one thing that I don't think was ever made clear to parents was "here's what you should expect out of a parent meeting". Now what I mean by that, I'm picking up on your point and saying, okay, so if I go into this parent meeting and I'm meeting you, my expectation might be right, Andy. What I'm going to do is I'm going to tell you all the marks and I'm going to tell you how they're going academically, and then I'm going to wrap it up and then you're going to go. And I'm going to see Mr. and Mrs. Jones and they'll be next. And that's just the way it works.
But I'm not sure if I've ever made clear to parents, here's what we're going to do in this time. We're going to talk about academic progress, but we're also going to give at least half of this time to talk about social and emotional stuff. We're going to do this and we're going to do that. And I just wonder I think maybe sometimes good meetings, I'm not saying this is true for all of them, but some meetings I think maybe benefit from knowing, having an agenda. This is what we're going to talk about in this meeting, so there's no surprises. But you know, I don't think, other than putting on a notice saying something like, "If you feel that we are going to need more time, because there's another issue that you'd like to talk about, contact the office and we will organise an appointment separately." Those sorts of things.
Or I've noticed for my son, who's in six form college over here, so he's 16 if you don't know what six form college is, it's the sort of two year stint. He's in his first year. But now with it being online, there is literally a bar going across the top with a timer, and the video conference stops after the countdown. Boom. So man, you have got a proper finite amount of time. So if you want to discuss anything...
Kind of like having Robin on your back.
Yes, you've got five minutes and that's it. Not a second longer. So that's a totally different dynamic again, because there might be something really important you want to talk about and you realise... You look up and you know exactly how much time. I've got 37 seconds exactly to talk about this point.
I think one thing that I can say is what I don't like, what I think really doesn't work. And this has happened to me a couple times at various different schools where the whole thing is led by the children. And the child is the one who speaks and the child is the one who reflects back on their performance in the last four months or whatever it is. Because I think it's a bit naive to think that children have that... I guess what's the word? I mean, maturity to run a meeting.
Yeah, the insight to say... yeah, well, absolutely. Imagine being six years old and going, "Actually I've reflected on that, Mr. Gifford, and in fairness, I probably should have paid more attention to the emotional state of Amelia. Probably shouldn't have said that. And I've really got to sharpen up my emotional intelligence a wee bit. So I'm glad that we've discussed it." What?
Yeah, and that's true all the way to secondary school, because self-awareness and self-reflection is obviously something we want to foster in children, but it's not something that comes naturally, especially for all kinds of different developmental reasons. In high school, there's way too many hormones floating around for them to have any kind of objective eye on what's going on. Because they worry about stuff that's not anywhere near anything to do with academic. "Oh, I don't want to talk in front of the class. That really cute guy's at the back, and I don't want them to think that I'm square or that I'm whatever." Everything gets in the way. They see things through a different lens. So I always find those really frustrating.
And I'll tell you what's another thing that can be frustrating, and I know that time is kind of... Oh no, we're still okay. We're still okay on time. So like my experience last night. So Artemis is unlike my other children in the sense that I actually had one teacher say, "She's the perfect student," which is kind of a bizarre thing to say. I don't know if that's a good thing to say to a parent, but anyway, whatever. That's what he said. But it was a light conversation, but I met with three teachers last night, all online, and they all said the same thing. It's fine. It's great. Nothing to say. What do you want to do with our 10 minutes? And we'll just kind of nervously stare at each other, and I try to make up what I think are clever questions to ask. "Well, what can I do to support her at home?" All these kinds of things that you say as a parent, and they have nothing to say because she's doing fine. And that's kind of really awkward in a way, too. And I don't know. How do you manage that when there's nothing to say?
Well, for me, I've come to this, it wasn't like I came into teaching and I had this mindset, and certainly having children changed my view a bit and sitting on the other side of the table and having that experience. I think the single most important thing for me as a parent, but I think it's probably something you can kind of generalise and say that most parents would say that this is true, you want to know that that person set opposite you knows your child. That they're not just numbers or they're not just doing well or they're not whatever. You know my kid, and you are going to say something to me that makes me think, "Yeah, they're in safe hands. You care, you know, you've listened. You've understood."
Brilliant. I trust you that you are going to get the best out of my child most of the time. Because if you can do that, then we're okay. If someone just tells me something and it seems a bit generic and it's just a bit, "Yeah, they're doing great, and they got 86% and they did this and they did that." I'm kind of like, "Yeah, you could have just got the names wrong on a piece of paper. Are you sure that you got them in the right order?"
So, let me ask you this question, maybe we should have asked this question in the beginning. What's the purpose? Why do we even do it? Is it to make parents happy?
Yeah, of course. That's part of it. Yeah, no it's multifaceted. Yes, to make parents happy, because parents are doing their best to raise children the best we can. And maybe I'm just speaking for myself, but...
Well, most parents. We hope most.
No, but what I was going to say was that most of us try hard, but I'm acutely aware of my failings and all that sort of stuff in the parent line and all that sort of stuff. So I think that there's part of it that you go there and you hope that what you are doing has made in some way a positive impact on your child at school. So you want to make sure that those values and all that you hold dear, you hope they're being replicated in school. So there's that reassurance part. I think the other part too is there's all sorts of things. Like, so for teachers, it's quite interesting to see a) who turns up. I know quite a few schools where there's loads of parents that don't, and you kind of think, even if it's just those two nights a year, then if you can't make them, there might be a really good reason for not making them, but if there's no contact with the school, it's kind of like, "Oh, okay, this might be a little bit more difficult in certain circumstances, possibly." That's what that may indicate.
But I think the other part of it is that for me, it's our job as educators to try to create the most well-rounded human beings that we can, good people to have on the planet. You can't do that in isolation. That's not school's job. That's not home's job. That's everyone that's involved in this person's life. Because we all have an influence. And for me, I think that the purpose of that is to try to make sure that this child is getting the best care, attention, love, guidance, and all those sorts of things possible, and I don't think that they can happen to the best of their potential in isolation.
So if I ever just get told, "Leave it to me," unless my contribution is detrimental and we know those circumstances exist, but I just think that they're so important if the end goal is not just, You got a [inaudible 00:15:19]. But if the end goal is we want a human being that's happy and healthy, physically healthy, mentally healthy, all of those sorts of things, then we've all got shares in the company. And that to me is if we remember that, then we can probably get more out of the conversations that we're having.
Yeah, that requires sort of cooperation from everyone. And what happens when the parents are really hostile and how to take a sort of know-it-all... "Your problem is blah, blah, blah. You don't understand my child. My kid's really smart. You haven't noticed that yet." Whatever it is, right? Parents can be tricky sometimes. Of course they love their children, well, we hope so anyway. And they want their kids to do well, but they may have a warped view on education maybe because of where they were educated or for whatever reason, or don't understand modern education principles. They come in sort of with all these demands that are unreasonable for their children, and what do you do in a situation like that?
Yeah, but those are the things that's so crucial that you then have the dialogue. So crucial. I remember teaching one boy and geez, I'm not a massive stickler for handwriting. I've got to be honest with you. I think it's important that it's legible and readable and those sorts of things, but am I, when a child's say 10 years old, going to really, really lose it if they're not handwriting in a certain style or something? For me personally, no, absolutely not. I'd much rather just be interested in what they're actually writing as opposed to how it's presented as long as I can read it. Anyway, there's one child and there was a handwriting issue, but the bottom line was that his mum had said something once in passing about handwriting and he'd taken that to heart, and he'd never told me why he was doing this one thing which made it almost illegible. And in the dialogue with mum, we put it right.
But I think that's the thing, too. I think that it's all about trying to, I think I've said this previously, listen to understand. And understand where they're coming from and also know our limitations in schools, where we need to ask for help outside of schools in order to be able to help that child. So I think it is really tough and I think that engaging parents that don't want to engage with school full stop is really tough. I think that's even harder still, even though it's easier in that there's no problem per se, I may well have said this before, but I think it's really important is it's an emotional job. It's an emotional job being a teacher. It's an emotional job being a parent or an uncle or an auntie or a grandparent. So don't expect conversations if they're touching on some stuff that isn't just a light, "Oh, Andy's doing well today," don't expect it to be anything other than emotional. And go into it thinking that and be very clear that you go into those conversations thinking, "Yeah, we're doing that for this child." And that's it. I say, "That's it." It's hard.
So last question, Adam, last question for you. I know this is kind of a silly question, but I'll ask it anyway. How much time should teachers prepare themselves mentally, prepare their notes, prepare whatever? How important... because teachers don't have much time. They're so busy. How much of an effort should they be putting into this time wise and everything?
I'll try to answer this as succinctly as possible, because I think there's two parts to it. The first part is that I think a lot of what we're talking about, we should know. Now, I think that's harder in high school perhaps because they're not dealing with the same child all the time. But in primary school, we are with them for the majority of the time. Okay, if I've got 30 children in front of me for a full year, I should know them really well. Really, really, really well. In terms of preparation time, well it depends on what the focus of the meeting is. But what I would say in answer to your question is I think what is a more important thing to consider is how much time is needed for what I'm about to talk about?
So if I'm about to talk to you about something that's actually quite full on, I'm not going to grab you when you pick up Artemis and say, "Oh, Andy, have you got five minutes?" I need to say to you, "Listen, can you clear some space in your diary? Tell me when you're available. I think we are going to need a bit of time for this. We might not use it all." There's nothing worse than that. Or vice versa as a parent, I'm about to start teaching at nine o'clock when a parent comes in at two minutes to nine and says, "Oh, by the way, Mr. Gifford. This has just happened. So-and-so's grandmother's died. This has happened. I'm in bits." And you go, "Oh my goodness. Ah, wow, I've got 30 children sitting in front of me. We can't give this the time that it takes."
So I think an answer to your question is a woolly one. One, make sure that you've got enough time for all outcomes of that conversation and make sure it suits the topic of conversation. And the second thing is you must give yourself enough time to prepare, to make sure that you know what you're talking about to the best of your ability for the person you are about to talk about, because it's really important. It's not just, "This is the weather for the next day." The right amount of time is how much time.
Yeah. There you go. Invaluable advice from the one and only Adam Gifford.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.