As a high school student, I would dread parent–teacher interviews. Not because I was particularly naughty, but because I hated any intersection of ‘school-life’ and ‘home-life’. In my mind, these two spheres were a perverse kind of Venn diagram, that should never – never – overlap.
Fortunately, those were the days when school communication was of the paper variety. It was marvellous how easily a ‘Letter Home from School’ could accidentally slip into a rubbish bin between the bus and the front door of my house. Unfortunately, my big brother was particularly naughty and had lost a few too many letters. This meant an escalation to a phone call from the deputy principal, insisting my parents attend the dreaded Tuesday evening parent–teacher interviews.
Those interviews were even more nerve-wracking when I became a teacher. For starters, I was only 21 and had to spend the first five minutes persuading parents that I really was qualified and not just one of their kid’s friends playing a prank. (My colleagues would enjoy going along with the so-called joke, shouting “Amanda! What are you doing in Miss Betts’ chair?”)
During my first few years of teaching, my main mistake was trying too hard to please, as I’d incorrectly assumed all parents were like my own: desperate to hear positive things about their children. This meant I tried very hard to be upbeat. “Susie has so much (as yet unidentified) potential!” “There’s a very good child inside Johnny, waiting (if currently refusing) to come out.” And, “Susie’s working to the very best of her (somewhat limited) ability”.
For the most part, unlike teachers, parents are there because they want to be.
Parents would stare back at me, confused, believing I’d mistaken their child for another one. (Something I must confess I did do a number of times.) They would walk out in a dazed but hopeful state, clutching each other and daring to dream. I felt a little guilty about it, but wasn’t I giving them what they’d always wanted: a ‘B’ in parenthood; “keep up the good work”?
It took one parent to set me straight. After waxing lyrical about his son’s “flair for social interaction” and “creative methods of expressing himself”, this father leaned across the desk and said, “Cut the ****. He can be a **** at home, and I know he’s a **** here too”.
Since then, I’ve decided that honesty is (almost) always the best policy. The truth is, parents have many different reasons for attending these evenings. Some resignedly plonk themselves down, ready for the worst. Some scribble everything you say into a notebook. Others just want to check out the facilities. Some take the opportunity to ask you out (this is also a thing)! Or they believe their child is a genius and are hoping you’ll be the authority figure to finally confirm it.
Some want an ally for negotiations: “Do you think, if Johnny/Susie doesn’t do their homework, I should hide the Xbox?”
Some parents are desperate to learn the secret of getting their children to read (though, when asked, don’t actually read themselves). Others come to vent about their child to someone who truly understands (unlike their therapist). Some want statistical data so they can see where their child sits on the curve. Others confess they have no idea what they’re doing. Some want an ally for negotiations: “Do you think, if Johnny/Susie doesn’t do their homework, I should hide the Xbox?”
For the most part, unlike us, parents are there because they want to be. Sure, there’s the awkward dance as we work out whether to shake hands, bump elbows, or apologise from the get-go. Teachers have to ascertain what type of parent we’re dealing with: How honest should I be?
Just remember, the parents are more frightened than we are. They’re the ones who are vulnerable and judged. Even more frightened is the child sitting at home, imagining the infinite ways it could play out.
So be as honest as appropriate, and make the most of the school–home Venn diagram convergence. Because in the long run, Johnny or Susie will be better for it.