Parents’ Evenings have always been challenging to get right and can cause nerves and frustration for teachers and parents alike. In the best-case scenario you have 5 minutes with each parent to discuss a whole year’s learning in the subject and offer guidance, reassurance and support. There are far too many data about far too many students to keep everything clear in your head, but we want the appointment to be far more than reading from a spreadsheet. And even if everything goes well with your appointments, things outside of your control can throw off the timings leading to significant over-runs, bottle necks and understandably frustrated families. Research suggests that there is a high level of dissatisfaction with parents’ evenings amongst parents with common issues around organisation, quality of information and unclear outcomes (Power and Clark, 2000).
This year parents’ evenings present a new level of challenge as we try to find a way to talk to parents about their children’s wellbeing, learning and happiness without meeting them in person and risking creating a super-spreading event. Some schools are offering phone call appointments, but many are exploring conducting appointments by videos. John Mason is piloting this approach with the New Tutors’ Evening this Thursday, and will then look to scale this up to full parents’ evenings if it is successful. This requires us to translate our best practice in making parents’ evenings a success into a video format. Below are some reflections on how this might work well, which we can update after our pilot evening based on our actual experiences.
- A professional and enthusiastic face … Research suggests that some teachers consistently get the professional approach to parents’ evenings wrong. Distractedly flicking through papers, minimal eye contact, no hand-shake or proper greeting. Our team are encouraged to make the effort to stand, shake hands, dress smartly and to try and give a clear, energetic and professional feel … however exhausted we are! These little professional touches give a strong positive open message. But what are the virtual equivalents that can create a poor or negative professional impression? One issue to be aware of is the multi-screen effect. It is quite common to sit in video meetings where someone is always looking away from you because their face is pointing at a different screen whilst the camera is located on the laptop. We’re used to this and know what it means but I wonder how it will look to parents who may be experiencing this for the first time. Show you are giving your full attention by looking in the camera and making “eye contact”. Don’t forget that if you are looking at other windows, email, data the effect can be magnified on screen. Working online it is easy to fall into some multi-tasking habits that do not convey full attention to the matter at hand – so be careful to turn off distractors (shut down email and any other unnecessary programmes in advance) so that we can give our parents and children our full, undivided attention for the limited time they have.
- Sharing information … Power and Clark (2000)’s research indicated that parents often felt dissatisfied with the quality of information at parents’ evenings finding the information given about their children was too generalised, grades given were unclear and discrepancies in reports remained unclear. Whether meeting parents as a teacher or a tutor, it is really important that the information we are giving is clear and helpful. Sometimes we have entered data some time earlier and it is easy to lose track of the nuances of our thinking. Preparation is the key: remember parents are likely to have the latest progress check to hand. Before the parents’ evening take time to review the data they have been given. Are there any apparent anomalies that might need to be explained e.g. for a teacher good attitude to learning scores but progress data that is “under target”? For a tutor, this might be specific subjects whether the student’s attitude to learning data looks significantly off-pattern. It can be well worth having any whole-school documents to hand such as the attitude to learning criteria or your subject grade boundaries. In this way you will be ready to provide parents with helpful and clear answers to many of their questions.
- Under-promise and over-deliver … However well-prepared you are, there are still going to be some questions raised or issues parents want to discuss that you may not have immediate answers to. This is fine and most parents understand why this will be the case. However, at this point it is easy to make things worse by promising specific outcomes or timeframes that you cannot realistically commit to. Perhaps you’ll need to check some information with a subject teacher, head of department or director of key stage. This could take a little time, especially if other teachers are also asking them for clarity about issues arising from parents’ evening. Promising a reply the next day which you may not be able to secure can leave them frustrated at the lack of contact on top of the original question. It is far better to make a realistic commitment that you can be sure to deliver on, even if that means allowing a few days to prepare an informative answer. There’s nothing stopping you contacting them earlier if you are ready. Should you find yourself unable to keep a promise; perhaps, say, a member of staff you need to speak to is off work, then it is vital that you follow up with the parents to ensure that the flow of communication remains strong.
- Keeping to time… One of parents’ main complaints about parents’ evenings is when appointment times are not kept to. It can be very tempting to take a few extra minutes or allow someone who was running late to slip in quickly; but if this holds up the flow of appointments it has implications for anyone trying to meet multiple teachers or get home for childcare or to be on time for a shift at work. Virtual appointments should be a great help in this regard; we can expect a clear timer and an automatic system for ending appointments and starting the next. However this does leave the risk of being cut-off halfway through a discussion. It is more vital than ever that conversations are well-planned with space for parents to ask their questions early and to ask more questions towards the end with enough time to answer them. And, of course, some issues need more than 5 minutes once a year. When that is the case, the most important thing is to arrange a plan going forward: who is going to speak to the parent to discuss this further with fewer time constraints, when will this happen and what can they expect to happen next. If all that comes out of the discussion is an awareness of the issue and a plan to pick up the conversation as soon as is realistically possible, this can be a positive outcome, before the computer shifts to the next appointment.
- Clear outcomes … when parents’ evening ends without a clear outcome, this can be a source of considerable frustration to parents and students. Be sure to allow some time to sum up and be clear on what happens next. I have already mentioned how this may involve further contact. However it may also be that you are asking the parents’ to support their child’s education in a particular way, the child to commit to a change just agreed with you and their parents or to an action as a teacher to support the child or communicate further. Especially if change needs to happen, be clear on what is being agreed going forwards and make sure you make a careful note of this yourself so that you can follow up at a later point.
Of course, not everything will change because parents’ evenings have gone virtual. We will still need to ensure that we have planned what we want to say, have a clear system of noting any actions we have agreed to and have to hand any information we might need such as our own markbook. Time is still very tight and it is well worth acknowledging this with parents at the start, whilst noting the possibilities for further communication as needed.
Furthermore, like many things that have come out of Coronavirus, there are likely to be some benefits to virtual parents’ evenings. For the parents these include:
- Not having to schedule childcare,
- Reduced waiting time between appointments because of tight schedule,
- Not missing appointments as they try to navigate the unfamiliar geography of the school if the student isn’t with them,
- A chance to ask questions in advance to help ensure the appointment focuses on what they most want to know,
- A greater level of privacy for conversations than when in large rooms with multiple teachers and other parents close by.
As such, we have an opportunity to ensure that our parents’ evenings are more positive and useful than they have ever been and than, according to research, lots of schools manage to achieve.
Some questions I like to reflect on before a parents’ evening to help ensure they have as much impact as possible include:
- If this student is doing well, what is it about their approach, learning strategies or attitude that is fuelling their success? What specific feedback can I give them about what to continue doing?
- If the student is struggling (if I have given them an attitude to learning score or a predicted grade that indicates problems with progress), what are the specific areas where change might be needed or help can be offered? What would I like to see happening differently in the future?
- Is follow-up needed? If there are unanswered questions, a message that needs to be reinforced, or a change being requested then it is likely that I am going to need to contact these parents again soon. Have I planned how and when I will get in touch so that they are clear on what to expect?
If you’re interested in reading further about parents’ evenings you might want to take a look at:
Sally Power & Alison Clark (2000) ‘The right to know: parents, school reports and parents’ evenings’, Research Papers in Education, 15:1, 25-48.