I’ve just been to my son’s parents’ evening. It is always strange and fascinating sitting on the other side of the desk, experiencing the imperfections of another school’s appointments system, speed-dating with a handful of wonderful but weary teachers. The main value of last night’s enterprise was putting faces to names; the characters of my son’s school stories are now real. We also came away with the key messages: his teachers know him, they think he’s doing well so far, enthusiastic about the learning, and they came across as caring professionals who know what they are doing.
In theory, at this stage, our parent-teacher interaction need only be light touch; our son will form his own relationships with his teachers, he’ll take responsibility for his own learning and we’ll be there in the background offering support to him and his teachers alike. Generally, this isn’t far off; our kids’ teachers are usually very positive about them and, in return, we’re full of praise for the care and attention they receive. It’s a virtuous circle; a love-in.
Of course, in reality we will be watching like hawks. We are your classic North London turbo-charged über-parents who will do whatever it takes! Although I’ll absorb my son’s school experience through my professional filter, I’m going to be as demanding as hell. I see it as my right but also my duty to make sure he gets the best education the system has to offer. I am probably a bit of a nightmare for some teachers. Although I seek to be truly supportive…I generally love my kids’ teachers for their passion and knowledge and will tell them so….I’m not afraid to challenge things when I sense low standards are lurking.
When, at a past parents’ evening, a teacher suggested my daughter should participate more in class, I probed. Turns out he meant she didn’t put her hand up enough!! Well, as you can imagine, he got an earful of my ‘no hands-up’ spiel; was he really expecting her to compete for air time in that ludicrous way? Similarly, the teachers who went on the defensive when I raised concerns about the absence of practical work or the lack of homework across a whole term, got a clear message. I was polite…but clear.
So, that’s a flavour of how I operate as a parent. I have high expectations of my children’s teachers and fully expect them to be as demanding of me as I am of them. As a family we are doing our bit … providing the most supportive learning-focused home environment imaginable, teaching our kids about boundaries, rewarding them for being curious and conscientious and, consequently, making them ‘a pleasure to teach.’ All the bedtime reading, number games in the car, word-play in the living room and caring family discipline seem to have paid off.
So, where’s the problem? The point of this post is to suggest that, too often teachers and schools aren’t open to this supportive but challenging partnership; they want the support but find it hard to accept the challenge. Generally speaking I find that most parents are very reluctant to raise concerns (it’s stressful and difficult) and when they do, a defensive reaction is too common. Parents are then labelled as pushy, demanding, unreasonable. I know a school where it is common currency to disparage parents, from the Headteacher down :’you know what our parents are like’ ie – excessively demanding, a bit of a nightmare.
Well, here is the crux of this post. If we’re fretting about pushy parents we’ve lost the plot. What schools need are more ‘pushy parents’, not fewer. I’m not talking about parents who want to influence who gets picked for the school team or school play; I’m not talking about parents that are rude or aggressive; I’m not talking about the parents featured in this brilliant post by Stephen Drew (Dear Parent, what I’d really like to say is…), who are convinced that their teenage offspring never lie or misbehave; I’m talking about parents who want their children to be stretched, challenged and inspired as well as supported, nurtured, known and valued as an individual. That’s our job and if we get the occasional prompt or outright challenge to do better, we should be glad.
Why? Well, consider the opposite. Read this wonderful post by Andy Day: http://meridianvale.wordpress.com/2013/09/14/the-purpose-of-education/ the powerful image of the empty chair; the absent parent of a child who needs all then help they can get. What a difference it would make if those chairs were all filled, and instead of the depressing void of parental non-engagement we had a few more parents taking an interest and, yes, being a bit more pushy.
Of course, you could argue that by the time we get to secondary school, the gaps are already entrenched; we’re doing well just to stop gaps getting wider, never mind narrowing them. But the evidence is clear about the importance of parental attitudes and capacity to create an appropriate home learning environment. This Joseph Rowntree Foundation report sets out the issue very clearly.
Children from the highest and lowest income quintiles are diverging in their behaviour after 9 months, with serious gaps in their cognitive ability evident on arrival at nursery school aged three. There are many influences on children’s outcomes but they all have a mutually reinforcing positive or negative effect, including the parallel influences on their parents:
Surely this is the territory of serious transformation in educational outcomes: changing parental attitudes,raising aspirations and supporting new parents to provide a stimulating learning environment where their role in language development is understood. At primary and secondary school, I think we need to do more to address these issues head on; I’ll write about ideas for that in another post.
For now, I just want to make the point that whenever teachers or leaders bemoan the pressure exerted by pushy parents, perhaps they should be more grateful; they might do well to listen to what they’re asking for. As I often say, every parent’s perspective is valid, even if we don’t agree with them – that is how they see things And, yes, they may well know their kids as learners much better than we do:
- Maybe there could be better discipline in the lessons,
- Perhaps there could be more homework set
- Maybe the parent is correct in thinking that their child is capable of gaining a higher grade than we’d suggested
- They could have a point that the work in general could be more challenging
- Maybe it’s true that the decisions about who goes in each ability set were rather arbitrary
- Perhaps their disappointment at not being selected/included is natural and could have been handled better
- Possibly, yes, the school could do more to reward students and could focus less on punishments.
And so on… Pushy Parents: Embrace them, listen to them, work in partnership with them. They will make you a better teacher and your school a better school. And let’s focus our energies dealing with those parents that don’t know how to push at all.