Education: How parents can learn to talk to the enemy

Traditionally, it's children who are depressed by going back to school: but locking horns with teachers can also inspire fear in their parents. By Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer
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The Independent Culture
The nation's schoolchildren will soon have been delivered back into the welcoming arms of teachers, allowing parents far and wide to breathe a sigh of relief as schools take over and domestic order resumes. Or will they?

For some, the new term means the unwelcome return of morning mayhem, bedtime battles and homework horrors; for others, the moment will be marked, just as unpleasantly, by rising fears about having to re-engage with their children's teachers.

Whether it is having another go at ensuring that a child is fully stretched, at being called in - again - to hear about the latest incident of misbehaviour or, simply, at attending the regular parent/teacher consultations, walking into school to discuss your child is a daunting and uncomfortable experience for many.

Typically, each side blames the other. Teachers complain about parents undoing their good work or about them being pushy or negligent or aggressive. Parents, on the other hand, complain that teachers put them down, do not listen to them, misconstrue the points they have to make and seem to blame them or their children for everything. During one recent parenting course that was run by a family service unit, laid on to help parents help their children at school, unhappy experiences with teachers dominated the discussions for weeks.

It is a big issue. The home/school interface is beset with an array of negative assumptions, expectations and experiences - which does not exactly bode well for the new home/school liaison in which this Government is placing so much hope.

Teachers usually explain parents' lack of co-operation or unhelpful style by highlighting parents' own unhappy school days, but that explanation doesn't always fit. Even parents who are practising teachers can get fazed when it is their turn to face the music, and they, if anyone, should be comfortable in a school setting. However, for a more satisfactory account of the problems encountered by parents, we have to look further, to issues of power and self-esteem.

When it comes to power, teachers have it all while parents have next to none. Parents frequently attend consultations or other meetings with no idea of what they are likely to hear, no understanding of the systems referred to or of the jargon used and no opportunity to state in advance what they want to know. Even the most confident have to maintain a clear head so as not to be diverted from their planned agenda.

One single mother I know walked out of a meeting to discuss her child's behaviour because, on top of English not being her first language, she believed the psychological testing suggested would label her child for life and disadvantage her in her ongoing cross-national custody battle. She was so overcome with fear and confusion that she left the headteacher's office rather than remain there, tearful and tongue-tied. A few preliminary explanations would have helped her enormously.

Although teachers say that they feel apprehensive whenever they meet parents, they certainly hold all the cards; and some strive to keep it so. As Barrie Irving has written in Pastoral Care: "Cynics may suggest that... professionals have exploited this situation as it has enabled them to retain specialist skills and knowledge, thereby affirming their expert status. By distancing parents... the uneducated and/or uninterested are denied access."

Parents would feel less exposed and more respected not only if they had some briefing prior to consultations but also had the opportunity to pose questions in advance.

Another explanation for poor attendance at school meetings is parental self-esteem. Parents with failing children are usually either low achievers themselves or are coping with personal difficulties. Anyone with a poor or shattered opinion of themselves will find it hard to accept their children's shortcomings because they take these personally, as an assessment of themselves. Their reaction is to defend their child and deny any wrongdoing - in order to protect themselves.

It is not surprising that parents who feel that they are the butt of teacher disapproval, and who anticipate and dread problems, are reluctant to attend meetings where they fear that they will be "insulted" again. On top of this, some parents are reluctant to treat schoolwork as important because this can undermine their view of themselves. It can be hard to value something when to do so rubs your nose in your own failure.

Quite apart from these underlying and sometimes complex dynamics, it is much harder to feel comfortable about meeting teachers and to achieve a satisfactory outcome when those involved do not communicate as well as they might. Teachers can be as guilty as parents, though it should be part of their professionalism - and therefore their training - to know better. The two scenes described below show how clumsy handling by either side can lead to confrontation and how some simple changes of approach can produce a more co-operative and constructive encounter.

Quality home/school partnerships require good communication; and good communication entails listening, hearing and understanding, being clear about what is expected, offering information and avoiding outbursts and accusations. It also involves showing appreciation and passing on good news as well as bad. Both parents and teachers can show they have listened and understood through the tactic of summary: "So you are saying you believe some help from home with reading would help Gita quite a lot" or "I think you are saying..." before putting the next point. Both sides can show understanding: "It must be difficult for you, Mr Taylor, if you think this is what I am saying to Tommy in class/if you have 30 other children to manage at the same time..."

They can both avoid confrontation by resisting generalisations about a child; starting sentences with "I...", as in "I think Abi could be getting on faster", is better than "You are not teaching her properly"; and explaining what works for them, as in "Priya seems happier to read when she can manage the first page", is better than "The books you give her put her right off". Both parties can do their jobs better if they are sensitive to each other's efforts and constraints and keep each other properly informed.

Children do best when parents and schools trust and respect each other. Each side should feel able to raise any worries and should expect to be listened to in return.

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer is the author of `School Matters - And So Do Parents', a resource pack for schools available from her on 0181 458- 8404

Watch What You Say

SCENE 1 Confrontational version

Teacher: Ahmed is uncooperative (blanket negative statement, presented as fact).

Parent: I don't have any trouble with him at home.

Teacher: I'm surprised. Maybe he's worse in big groups. I've got too many children to say things over and over. He's got to learn to fit in. Saeed was such a pleasure, you'd never think they were brothers.

Co-operative version

Teacher: I find Ahmed uncooperative much of the time.

Parent: Can you tell me what he does that makes you say that?

SCENE 2 Confrontational version

Teacher: Emma's lazy and won't concentrate. She will never get on at this rate.

Parent: She's not lazy. At home she concentrates when she's interested. What do you mean by "lazy"? I expect the work you set is boring.

Teacher: She's the only one who never finishes her maths sheets. And she dawdles when she has to clear up before break. These have to be done. It's not a question of making it interesting.

Co-operative version

Teacher: I know Emma could do better. She comes across as lazy, but it could be a concentration problem. Is this something you recognise from home?

Parent: Not really. Could you give me an example of her being "lazy"?

Teacher: Emma finds it hard to finish the maths sheets in the time given. And she's in another world when she's asked to tidy up! Could there be something on her mind?

Language Laboratory

TIPS FOR PARENTS

Do take in a note of what you really want to say, and do not be shy about referring to it.

Do raise the most important issue first, in case it gets forgotten.

Do make an appointment and think carefully about what you want to say.

Avoid grabbing teachers in the playground and talking when you're angry.

Do remember that it's your child's work or behaviour that's at issue, not you or your parenting. Try not to take it personally, even if you feel they are blaming you.

Do trust the school with information about any family problems that may affect your child. Teachers can do a lot to help children cope.

Do remember that teachers can feel just as nervous about meeting you as you them.

TIPS FOR TEACHERS

Do treat parents' concerns and knowledge with respect. Most parents take days to find the courage to come in.

Do not react defensively to any criticism: try something on the lines of "It sounds as though you're worried about Darren..."

Do ask parents how much support they feel they can manage.

Do give parents any good feedback about a child's work or behaviour whenever possible. Parents resent hearing only bad news.

Do understand how illness or divorce affect the certainty of family life.

Do check if there is anything more to discuss. Arrange another meeting if necessary.

Do beware provocative generalisations or comparisons with a sibling.

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