WHEN YOUR CHILD first heads off to school, it can be hard to let go. You remember your own teachers – the inspiring, the boring and the downright useless. What’s this one going to be like? And most importantly, how can you get the best out of her and ensure your child’s time at school is happy and fruitful. There are tricks to the trade, and, after teaching for over 25 years, I can guarantee that these 10 tips will earn you top marks with your child’s teacher.
1 Treat teachers as professionals
Most teachers come across parents who think they could do a better job. Teachers get a lot of criticism in the press, but the vast majority are very competent and dedicated. They have had many years of training and standards have improved in the last few years in both private and state sectors. However, a friend of mine was teaching in a successful school in Hampstead where parents are encouraged to help out from time to time. When one of the mothers began a part-time Open University course in child psychology, she took to visiting the school with advice, even though she had barely completed the first module of the course.
Once or twice a week the poor teacher would have to put up with the mother’s latest half-baked ideas on child psychology. She even offered to give one-to-one cognitive therapy to one of the more troubled boys in the class. The head teacher finally asked her to come in for a meeting and she was put kindly, but firmly, in her place. If you really think you can do a better job, sign up for a teacher training course and find a post. It really is a great profession.
2 Be realistic
When my first child was born, I knew I had produced someone a little bit special. Part Einstein, part Beckham, part Mozart with the looks of Brad Pitt. I knew geniuses were rare, but I was certain I had one on my hands. As parents, we have huge expectations for our children. They are going to be good at all the things we found hard and succeed where we failed. But by the time we have had two or three children, we tend to become more realistic about the abilities of our offspring. Unfortunately, for some parents the penny doesn’t ever seem to drop, and if their child isn’t reading War And Peace by their third birthday, then there must be something wrong.
My friend, Tara, who teaches at a private nursery, bumped into a mother pushing a pram. She looked so miserable, Tara asked her what was up. “I’m so disappointed. My child was born in September and she’ll be really old for her year,” the mother said. “I wanted her to be born in August so she’d be in the year above. A child as intelligent as her must be stretched.” Tara looked into the pram again, but all she could see was a three-week-old baby.
The mark of genius, so obvious to this mother, was somehow escaping her. Having high expectations and wanting the best for your child is great, but it’s even better if you can remain realistic. When the teacher says your child is just about average, then he probably is. Yes, there are some late bloomers who don’t flourish until they are older. But as teachers, we usually get it right. If you can’t be realistic about your child you are going to irritate the teacher, and more importantly, it may have a detrimental effect on your child.
3 Forgive mistakes
As we all know, working with children is not an exact science. This means that, on occasion, teachers are going to get it wrong. When you’re dealing with your child’s teacher, try not to complain about every mistake she makes. The chances are that most of them are unimportant in the scheme of things. If there is a serious problem or an ongoing situation, then make an appointment with the teacher and talk through the issues. If there is still no change, ask the head teacher to become involved, but continue to be polite and positive during these meetings.
I taught in a primary school in Westminster where I was plagued by one mother. Her daughter, Gemma, a likeable and surprisingly easy-going girl, was doing fine as far as I was concerned. But her mother felt differently and she used to come in two or three times a week with a complaint. The work was either too hard or too easy; I had made Gemma tired during PE; one of her hairbands had disappeared; I wasn’t giving her enough homework… and so it went on.
At the end of the school day, the door would open and, like clockwork, Gemma’s mother would appear and ask for a “quick word”. After a term of this, I confronted her. When I explained that I didn’t have time to respond to every single query, she became extremely aggressive. I found out later that she had written to the Local Education Authority and the Secretary of State for Education, before eventually removing Gemma from the school, rather than resolve the issue.
Remember, teachers really do want the best for your child. Think of yourself and the teacher as a team working together towards the same goal and, like the best teams, focus on the positive and avoid dwelling on the negative.
4 Acknowledge your feelings about school
When children first start school, parents are often surprised by the feelings that are aroused when they set foot on the school premises. Memories of the smell of boiled cabbage, damp PE kits and chalk dust take parents right back to their own childhood. As a result, when some parents walk through the school gate they start behaving like a child again.
At my first open evening as a teacher, I was amazed at how many of the parents seemed to be nervous. They looked at me as though I was going to scold them for not doing their homework. A friend of mine who is a successful lawyer says she bursts into tears every time she is asked to come into school by the teacher. The feelings we harbour from our own school days never leave us. I might be a head teacher, but I still knock on my own office door from time to time. Just remember to play the adult when visiting school. Be mindful of these old feelings, but don’t be hijacked by them.
5 Be punctual
This might seem trivial, but there is nothing more annoying than parents who consistently bring their children in late. Teachers are sympathetic to the odd bit of tardiness, but it is maddening to hear “Sorry I’m late” from the same parent every morning. Wake up earlier and get organised.
6 Offer to help out
Many schools like parents to get involved. If you can spare an hour or two a week to hear children read or help in an area of expertise, such as art or PE, then most teachers would be more than happy to see you. But equally, be realistic about how much time you can dedicate to the class. Parents who keep promising to come in every week and then don’t bother turning up drive us mad. Kate, the mother of a boy in my class, came to see me one morning and offered to help with my wall displays. She was brilliant. My classroom looked amazing and when Ofsted came they actually complimented me on the quality of work on the walls. Kate could have spent her time hanging round the school gate complaining how useless I was, but instead she was able to help me. Assisting in school helps build a relationship with the teacher, and if you ever do need to complain, the teacher knows you are already on her side.
7 Give positive feedback
Everybody thrives on praise and teachers are no different. Parents often find it hard to give positive feedback because schools can make them nervous, but we love being given compliments about our work. Teaching can be a very isolated job. Most of the time it’s just you and the children in the classroom; we rarely get any adult interaction during teaching time.
It’s great to hear from parents how happy their child is in our class or how much they have enjoyed a particular lesson. Being positive is a good way to motivate us and boost our enthusiasm for teaching. Try and start any parent-teacher conversation with some praise and you are far more likely to get a receptive and enthusiastic response.
8 Get the timing right
Teaching is an exhausting job. Until you have done it yourself it’s impossible to realise what a drain it can be. After a long day teaching your delightful child, and sometimes up to 29 others, teachers are not always at their best.
This makes the end of the day the worst time for serious meetings. I have seen more arguments between parents and teachers at hometime than at any other time, and most of them have been totally unnecessary. Often, teachers have been in authority mode all day and can’t always switch out of it the moment the children have gone home. Even the nicest teacher in the world can seem a bit imperious at this time of the day. If there is something concerning you, make an appointment.
The best time to see your child’s teacher is at least half an hour after the children have gone home. Take your child to a nearby café at hometime and buy him a hot chocolate before returning to the school. When you get back, you will hopefully find his teacher in a more positive problem-solving mode.
9 Don’t take breaks during term time
It’s really frustrating that airlines double their prices during the school holidays, but it’s even more annoying when parents take their children away a few days before the school term finishes. This isn’t because teachers are jealous of your week in the sun, but because there are all sorts of events – from sports day to school plays – that take place in the last days of term. These require a huge amount of preparation and organisation. Some parents think these events don’t really count because they’re not academic, but they’re actually an essential part of your child’s education. Children are more likely to learn life skills putting on a play or participating in sport than they will in a lifetime of maths or science lessons.
Teachers realise families are on a budget and it is usually only the serial offenders who really grate. In one school I worked in, one of the mothers would wait to see what part her daughter got in the school production each term, then book a holiday if she felt her daughter’s talents weren’t getting the recognition they deserved.
The end of term is not only good fun, it is also an important time for saying goodbye to friends and preparing your child for the transition into a new class. Taking this away from him because you want a cheap holiday can leave him feeling sad and confused.
10 It’s the thought that counts
Receiving presents from parents is fantastic, but don’t go over the top. A token gift at Christmas or at the end of the year always goes down well, especially if it comes with a card containing thanks and appreciation for all the teacher’s hard work. But remember that giving expensive presents around exam time is embarrassing and won’t make any difference to your child’s results. When I worked in a school in North London, I was lucky enough to meet some fantastic parents. They were part of a big Polish family and had enormous respect for the school. They were grateful for our hard work and got involved with sports day and the PTA. But what really made them teacher’s pet (as far as I was concerned) was the bottle of vodka ceremoniously plonked on my desk at the end of each and every term.
My wife, who is also a teacher, says she always get flowers, but I get booze. So, on her behalf, I would like to remind you that female teachers like a nice bottle of wine too…