Wednesday Wisdom

July 03, 2024

Parent-Teacher Insights

By Patrick Cragg

Parent-Teacher Insights

Reflect

As both an experienced teacher, and someone with school-aged children of my own, I’ve seen how children move between worlds as they go through the school gates, from their family and into the care of teachers. Parents and teachers share a belief in children’s potential and in helping them to become happy, successful young adults, but they see those children from two very different perspectives. No doubt both groups roll their eyes at the other on occasion! But two questions might help each side to understand, and work with, the other: As a parent, what would I say to my child’s teachers? And as a teacher, what would I say to the parents of children I teach?

The parent side of me would say: parenting is hard. The daily routine of getting ready and equipped for school, of pickups and dropoffs, the “life admin” of uniforms and clubs. Everything it takes just to get children through the school gates every morning. Schools are right to set expectations high for behaviour and academic achievement. Parents definitely want their children to be challenged. But the child you’re teaching today is someone’s son or daughter. They deserved to be smiled at, to be enthused. I want them to come home telling me what they learnt at school.

I know that a lot of learning is knuckling down and being resilient and putting in the work. I always try, as a parent, to remind my children of that. They can’t expect everything to be fun! But as a minimum I want them to have teachers who are excited to teach them.

As a parent, you can do absolutely everything right to the best of your abilities and still have bad days. If you ever find a parent impatient, standoffish or even rude, please consider that they probably didn’t wake up intending to be that way.

Children are children. They’re not mini adults. I know as a teacher it’s easy to forget this. They perceive the world very differently. Let’s imagine you meet a Year 7 with an August birthday. They’re just starting secondary school, with its huge environment and dozens of new staff and new expectations of behaviour and homework. But that child was nine years old just over a year ago. Please remember that when you’re thinking about academic challenge and “high expectations” in your curriculum.

It’s common now for children to sit a round of “baseline tests” when they begin secondary school, and to be formally tested every term after that. It’s a symptom of an educational culture in which schools face a lot of pressure on results, and so students are tightly monitored all the way through. But it doesn’t sit easily for me as the parent of an eight-year-old that this might be happening to him so soon.

Effort is a really tough concept for children to understand. Putting “effort” into something means putting time in, building a routine, trying to improve, being reflective and self-critical, setting realistic goals. These are all things you have to learn to do. But it’s obvious to me as a parent when my children’s teachers have really challenged them to improve and held them accountable to regularly produce their best work, because that’s when the child comes out of school desperate to show you their work and tell you the praise they got!

Please use homework carefully. Good homework is short, snappy, useful, and easy for the children to know exactly what to do. Testing children on spellings and times tables is a good homework! Setting open-ended research tasks is much more likely to result in us parents having to do the work, especially in Primary. I want my children to have quality time outside of school: to join clubs, to share a family meal, to sometimes have time for a trip to the park after pickup. And I want them to relax and recharge. Homework that gets in the way of that is likely to cause more resentment than learning, especially when it feels like busywork.

School is a vital part of children’s lives but it’s just one part. Children lead a whole home life away from school, with its own set of family members, friends, relationships, milestones, parties, activities, experiences and problems. Success at school is important, but it’s only one part of the people I want my children to grow into.

Motivate

From a teacher’s perspective, then, what are the messages I would pass on to parents? I’d probably start in the same place: teaching is hard. Schools have to strike a balance between respecting each student’s individuality and moving as a group. It’s extremely difficult, and impossible to get right all of the time.

It’s inevitable that particular policies, curriculum choices, rules, and teachers, will suit some children more than others. One of the best ways you can support the school is by encouraging your children to adapt to its culture, its curriculum, and its teachers. Following rules and becoming a little bit institutionalised is a reality of adult life for most people, and not a bad skill to learn. It’s what enables schools to function.

A healthy parent-school relationship is based in realism. Your children have their own goals, you have ambitions for them, and the school has targets for their achievement. But on any given day, all the school can do is take them one step forward from where they are now. If your child is put into a different set in a particular subject, for example, it doesn’t mean the school doesn’t believe in their potential or thinks they can’t succeed. It just means that where they are now, and the best next step for them, might be different from some of their peers.

It’s human nature to compare your children to others, but it’s an unhelpful way to think about progress at school. In Primary, some children take longer to develop their reading and writing. It doesn’t mean they won’t develop! Staying positive about what your child has achieved is far more helpful than a competitive mindset where you’re anxious about how they compare to their friends.

In reality, not every child can achieve the top grade in every subject. Not every child will get a place at the precise school or university they’re aiming for. Not every child peaks academically in time for their exams at 16 or 18. Please help your child to see education as a positive process of learning and developing, not as a set of standards they won’t live up to.

For every parent who thinks their school sets too much homework, another will complain that they don’t set enough! In reality, teachers would wish all students a varied and stimulating home life. It’s not easy: in many families, there simply aren’t hours available every evening for family activities and sit-down dinners. But it helps students so much to learn about the world by being out in it; to build the social skills and resilience that come from activities like Cubs, sport or music; to consume a varied diet of news, books, TV and music; to develop interests and hobbies that will form the basis of their future personalities and friendships.

In this era of group chats and social media, some schools experience a toxic anti-teacher culture among parents, where complaints and issues that should be properly dealt with in school are spread online and can ruin a teacher’s standing in the school community. I’ve heard horror stories about teachers whose social media feeds have been shared in group chats for parents to make fun of. Please, don’t get involved! Remember that other parents’ experiences won’t be reflective of your own. Inevitably, this sort of bad feeling seeps out into students, who are quick to discern their parents’ attitudes and adopt them for themselves.

Support

These straightforward tips will help you cultivate a productive relationship with your child’s school and their teachers.

Introduce yourself. Be proactive in establishing a line of communication with your child’s teachers. In a Primary setting, arrange a short meeting early in the year to find out how your child is settling in. In secondary, find out whether the school likes you to contact teachers directly or the Head of Year.

Celebrate positives. Focus on what your children have accomplished and what they’re learning; don’t hold them against standards they haven’t met yet. Ask their teacher for help in finding positives! Children thrive on praise, and knowing that the good (as well as the bad) gets back to parents.

Avoid comparison. Comparing your children to others will lead to dissatisfaction with them and with the school. Try to accept that their learning path might look slightly different to their peers’.

Get information. Find out from school what your children are learning and what sort of assessment they’re working towards. That way, you can help your child see the point in individual tasks and homeworks.

Ask for help. Be an advocate for your child in dealing with the school. If homework piles up, or your child is stressed or confused about work, speak to the appropriate person at school to ask for help. Almost everything can be fixed! Take your issues to the school, don’t spread them around other parents.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Tooled Up members can access a wide range of resources that nurture a positive attitude towards school and help to set goals and expectations.

Dr Kathy Weston recently gave a series of webinars on getting children ready for Nursery, Primary and Senior school, filled with tips and advice.

Transition is one of the most popular topics at Tooled Up, and we also have resources to support families whose children are moving into boarding school, up to sixth form or starting university.

Many parents are concerned with the broader wellbeing and resilience of their children. Explore this webinar on raising a resilient teen, advice for developing children's independence, and this popular webinar on understanding girls.