This is the last post in this series. I could go back over my school diaries (if I’d kept them) from 45 years but I think I’ll leave it now with just one story and what I think is my most rewarding idea. Of course if anyone wants to ask a question on a one-to-one basis I am happy to oblige.
Getting to know the parents is probably the most important thing you can do as a teacher. And I suppose there is not one school in the world that doesn’t hold parent/teacher evenings in some form or another. But in a lot of cases this can be a waste of time. Some smart spark who had just completed a brilliant post grad course in something convinced the boss that ALL boys in years seven and eight should do an hours woodwork every week. Now I love woodwork and it has some very positive aspects from an educational point of view. But six groups of twenty each week is not enough time to get to know all except the very best and the very worst. So report time was enough to give this old experienced fellow a stomach ulcer.
The night of the P/T interviews dawned and my first one was a MR and Mrs Tran and the next was Mr and Mrs Nguyen. They were neighbours and their boys sat together and worked together. To be honest I couldn’t make much of a comment except that they were both polite and both relatively skillful. So I told Mr Tran and his wife than young Tran was a very polite young boy and that he was developing his skills quite well. Before I had finished Mr Tran interrupted and said it didn’t really matter how skillful he was at woodwork. He was going to become a carpenter. What was important was whether he was respectful and listened to his teacher.
Then the Nguyens came in and I started in much the same way as before and sure enough Mr Nguyen interupted and told me that is was good that their son was polite but what was important was whether he had the sort of skill that would develop into him becoming a furniture maker.
Next term, when reports were needing to be written, I printed out a form asking each student to write out his own report. I explained that each boy’s parents have different aspirations, different expectations and want to know different things. So because I didn’t know the parents properly they should write what they thought the parents would want. I added that if they wrote down a pack of lies then I would respond by writing the real report as sternly as I could. They also had to give an assessment of A to E on such things as getting Homework done, Punctuality and a a couple more.
As is the case in most schools there is always one smart little darling who told me that he thought that the teacher was supposed to write the reports and he didn’t think he should. I told him that he was quite right and although all the boys could do it my way if they wanted to I would most certainly write his personally. He said, no thanks Sir, that’s OK, I was only joking.
But I did need to explain where I was coming from. I did not tell them I was tired of writing reports and that they bored me to tears. But I asked them to imagine that their father was going to build a small cupboard in the laundry to put brooms and things in. When he was half way through would he ring up the “Home Building Authority” and ask them to come out and give him a mark out of ten. Or would he look at his work and make sure it was going well and then continue. In the end, who gave him a ‘Satisfactory’, a ‘Very Good’ or a ‘Pull that thing down and Start Again’.
The system worked well in 100% of cases and I started to do the same in my academic classes as well. The only thing I needed to do was to lift some grades up a bit and add a slightly more positive comment. Almost all boys were a lot tougher on themselves than I would have been.
However it made me realise that there was a major, and inherent flaw in Parent/Teacher meetings.
I don’t know how many of you have read Robert Ardrey’s book “The Territorial Imperative”? In his book he describes in great detail the way that animals behave when they are in their own territory and how different they behave when they are out of their own territory.
When a parent walks into my room and sits down at the desk I have arranged for him then he is in my territory. I have control. He is submissive etc etc. Even if he comes to attack me he is still at a disadvantage.
So I thought it would be good to turn the tables. I did it with my year Nine Home Room Group. I told them that I would like to meet with their parents in their home for a cup of coffee. I told them we would not talk about school. All I wanted to do was to say hello. Every boy went home and I went to have coffee. Every occasion was a success. Take for example the case of John from the earlier post. Although his father showed his real colours John and I developed our Teacher/Student relationship well.
Some coffee days were different. I remember going to a Greek family. They said that it was their father’s name day and that meant it must be my name day as well. I was a single parent with two young children and we arrived at 12 noon as expected. There were thirty people there – unexpected. I became a new member of the family – unexpected. I drank ouzo. We left to go home about half an hour before Midnight. My two young children had a great time and were taught a few words in Greek that they might never use again.
I was the one out of my territory. The parents were in control and they got to know me in a much better way that before. From that day on I could go to a parent and tell him/her exactly what their little darling was up to and they trusted me to be telling the truth – because I had drunk coffee in their house.
Most of my colleagues thought I was stupid to waste time. I wasn’t getting paid overtime, they said. No, but I was getting some really great meals. Also having my two children with me helped a lot. Greeks and Italians and Vietnamese and Lebanese and Syrians and all the others are suckers for children. And I was such a great father bringing them up without a wife. Some of the boys told me they wouldn’t be able to misbehave in class any more. Why? “Because my mum will kill me if I do.”
(I haven’t the energy to proof read this. So tell me if you find a mistake.)