On Tough Young Teachers this week, we witnessed a delightfully awkward Charles negotiate a fine line between tragedy and farce at parents’ evening when attempting to sternly inform a non-English speaking mother of her wayward son’s poor exam performance. Walid, the aforementioned naughty, made it quite clear that his mum did not have a good enough grasp of English to understand the gravity of his poor performance, a fact picked up on by Charles as he walked away at the end of the evening, with the kind of deflated skulk only experienced at the end of a long day – and evening – in January.
The show has struck a chord with teachers at all stages of their careers, because of the universality of the experience of training to be a teacher. When I started teaching, as a Teach First participant in an inner city borough, I brought my own naïveté with me. I grew up in a community where the standing joke about Asian parents was that if you went home with a B grade, they’d smack you with a sandal and demand to know why you didn’t get an A before threatening to ship you off to a boarding school in India. The truth was, when I first started teaching, I thought all parents were like that. But they’re not.
In eleven years of teaching, I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their child to achieve. Even the most difficult parents show you eventually that they care desperately about the health, happiness and future of their children. Parents who do not speak very much English show, sometimes by their very presence, that they care about their child. It is very rarely indifference that makes it difficult for a teacher to enlist a parent’s support in disciplining their child, or helping them to revise. It is almost always a lack of understanding of how to help, the language barrier, the lack of space at home, a problematic personal experience of schools. Like one frustrated father says on the show: “I don’t know how to help him.”
How poignant, then, when Charles’ mum tells him that he might be the only adult in some of those children’s lives who can make the difference. In her words lie a truth about our society and education system. It is problematic that she is held up in contrast to parents on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. But, she’s right; he can’t give up on the children because they need him to be, in some ways, a substitute parent for his wards – to fill in the gaps left by parents who cannot provide what he can.
It was interesting to see the differing approaches to relationships with students. Meryl, ever the warm hearted idealist, stated that a child’s whole life can be affected by a teacher. Charles’ view was less effusive. There needs to be a degree of separation, he said. “I’m not their father, or their brother.”
All of this brings me back to the phrase ‘in loco parentis’. In 1855, Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester adopted the phrase as its school motto because their student population was made up of orphans. The staff there were literally in the place of the absent parents. However, as teachers in mainstream schools, we are not responsible for orphans – they have parents and we cannot work in isolation from them.
So what do we do when experiencing that sinking feeling at parents’ evening, when you realise that the parent is no more capable of influencing their child’s behaviour than you are? Firstly, resist the urge to speak loudly and slowly if a parent doesn’t speak very much English. Check with children about the language abilities of their parents, speak to other staff and find out before the evening starts. Enlist an interpreter if you can – not the child, as we all know how that can go (“Of course, mum, she’s saying that I’m an excellent student and I don’t need to do homework ever again…!”) An older student who speaks the same language will do the job nicely. Even better if the school has invested in staff who reflect the ethnic make up of the student population and community – interpreting staff are an invaluable asset.
We spend a lot of time as teachers debating as to whether we can be substitute parents, ‘raising’ children in schools that are open all hours. What if we spent some time ‘raising’ parents? This week, I spent an hour helping to teach a group of parents how to speak English. It was a humbling experience as it showed me that I may have to discard some of my frustrations with parents who do not know how to support their children – as their frustration is worse. And it is not just about parents who don’t speak very much English.
Parental engagement and support is absolutely vital in schools for parents of every walk of life – and it is often seen as such a Herculean feat that many schools do not attempt it. When it is committed to, it can change the educational experience of students, staff and parents alike. It’s worth it because everybody wins and parents’ evenings are suddenly less painfully awkward. It’s worth it for that alone!
First published on the Communitas PR Tough Young Teachers blog here
It was with a considerably arched brow that I read recently about how The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) have issued guidelines to parents on managing problematic behaviours in their children. As a teacher, I have long been an advocate of collaborating with parents, not only on the ins and outs of academic success, but also in terms of behaviour management and developing resilient and characterful children.
It is absolutely clear that success in education does not just come from parental understanding of the finer points of an English APP grid. Quite often, schools approach parental collaboration with a half hearted nod towards sharing academic resources and fulfilling statutory requirements to keep them informed as to how access the Ofsted Data Dashboard. I have heard conversations in the last ten years that start with a moan about how if only teachers could get parents to manage their own children and end with the inevitable: “but I don’t have time to set up a parental engagement session in which we discuss how to set boundaries and encourage co-operation!”
We can’t have it both ways. If we are going to comment on parental engagement as teachers, we have to be willing to have an open dialogue about what children – students – need to become successful adults. This means biting the proverbial bullet and dealing with the fact that this dialogue can be painfully awkward. As a teacher, I am allowed to say “your child is not behaving in a respectful or productive way” or “I am setting a sanction for undesirable behaviours” but when it comes to providing advice to parents on what I think they should do, that is when the awkwardness begins.
Fundamentally, the fact that I am not a parent works against me and in conversations with parents, I have faced that knowing smile (slightly sad, perhaps even pitying) that says: how can you possibly know what it is like to raise a child and all the difficulties that brings?
My response, never spoken aloud, is always the same. All I do is raise children. They come to my classroom as eleven year olds and they leave as eighteen years olds and for that time, I am partly responsible for their upbringing. Not only do I see them through their silly seasons, their traumas, their successes, I see each and every one of them standing next to other children with other parents. The full range.
I think if teachers had just one opportunity to stand up to the nation and give advice to parents, they would probably all say very similar things. There are many parents out there who are brilliant at doing all those things – this is not intended to generalise about parents’ ability to raise their offspring. So, in the spirit of sharing and dispelling the awkwardness and to start a dialogue, this is what I want to say to parents.
Talk with your child
It is not easy maintaining dialogue with a teenager. I, too, have seen sulking and unresponsive stares. As an English teacher, I see that the most literate children – the ones who go on to achieve the highest grades, are the ones whose parent/s talk with them. I say ‘with’ deliberately, because I have also seen a lot of talking ‘at’ and that doesn’t necessarily work if it used all the time. Children switch off and become immune to lectures, they are much more responsive to carefully considered questions. Suffice to say that the talking must begin early. All the research shows that modelling speech and conversation at an early age leads to more literate and successful children. Shouting parents almost always lead to shouting children.
Follow through with sanctions
If your child does do something you do not approve of, or is misbehaving at school and you set a sanction, it is imperative that you follow through with that sanction. Sitting in a meeting with your child’s teacher and saying that you will take away the X-Box/ground them for a week/stop them watching TV and then caving at the first tantrum or sulk just means they will keep on with the negative behaviour. There is nothing more frustrating than when a teacher has a meeting with parents and is told about the sanctions that will be put in place, only to find that student gloating about how they have not had any consequences at home. Teachers are told constantly to be consistent and firm with behaviour and sanctions; it would be brilliant if this could happen at home too.
Don’t give up
There is an oppressive sense of despair when I hear the words: “I can’t do anything with them – they won’t listen to me anymore – I give up” from a parent. The simple fact is that if you as a parent have given up, then there is very little hope that I am going to be able to turn things around, at school or indeed, at home. I want to be able to work with you to ensure the best outcome for the child – and yes, I can help to make things better, but if a parent washes his/her hands of a child, we may as well go for that early bath. The thing is, I also know that even though the words are said, it is very rare that a parent actually does wash their hands of their child. But the damage often comes from a child hearing those words. It offers carte blanche to a child to continue behaving in the way they are, whether that be not completing homework, or arguing with teachers.
It’s not about success, it’s about effort
Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller from Columbia University conducted a large-scale programme of research into the psychology of praise. The findings were incredibly clear – children who were praised for effort outperformed those who were praised for success. The day in, day out praise from a parent needs to be focused not on how clever the child is, but on how hard they work. This is something my colleagues and I are starting to recognise and see the results of – children who are praised for effort become more resilient and are more likely to pick themselves back up from failure. The biggest issue I see with my teenagers is the fear of failure; it often manifests itself in the child not even attempting to start something that is perceived as difficult, because that is easier than failing and trying again. Parents can help their children to overcome this fear by praising their effort and showing them that hard work is more important than success. Until it comes to the final examinations, of course.
Don’t blame me
The most divisive and destructive thing a child can see is a parent publicly blaming the school or an individual teacher for any problem that has occurred. When I call parents in for a meeting, chances are I have to squeeze it into a busy day. I am not there because I have some sort of antipathy for that particular child – I want to move forward. If a child sees a parent criticise a teacher, that division is set. By all means, disagree with me and my methods – tell me you think I am wrong, but not in front of the student. You will remove any respect that student has for me and if that is the case, how can I be expected to maintain the performance of that child and to ensure that rules and regulations are kept? In many ways, it is exactly the same thing as criticising your spouse’s interaction with your child in front of them. One parent attacking the other’s ability to parent in front of the children is seen as destructive; it is just as much so when you make it clear to your child that you do not respect that teacher enough to speak to them privately.
Get involved with the school
My biggest hope is that more parents feel they can become involved with the school their child attends. Lots of research has shown that parental engagement and involvement means different things to schools and parents. Fathers often feel marginalised as parent activities in schools can be perceived as being geared towards women, some parents do not feel they can access services the school offers for parents for fear of stigmatisation. One of the most difficult barriers in engaging parents is often their own experience of education. I firmly believe that schools have to find ways to engage with parents productively, as studies show that children of parents who are involved with the school not only outperform other students, but also have better attendance and behaviour.
If your school has a parents’ association, try to join it. Be proactive about contacting teachers – show that the dialogue is open. Attend school events, where you can, with your children. It is not easy; working hours often mean that parents find it incredibly difficult to attend evening events. I have a lot of respect for working parents who manage to get into the school for concerts and parents’ evenings alike.
There, I’ve started the conversation. I look forward to working with you.