Secret Teacher: I can't help but judge on parents' evening

Meeting students’ families offers a fascinating glimpse into their home lives – and helps me understand their behaviour in class

The long hours crammed behind a desk. The hand-shaking. The attempt to hold a polite grin when you’re desperate for a loo break. Parents’ evenings aren’t usually popular with teachers, but I love them.

It’s not praising students in front of their families that I enjoy so much. It’s not the looks on my pupils’ faces – from joy to outright fear – when I whip out their exercise books as evidence. It’s not even the crucial progress we can make in a good parental meeting, where no one can dispute what was said because everyone was there.

No, what captivates me are the glimpses into my students’ home lives because so much of their behaviour in class can be explained by simple interactions with their parents. The non-verbal cues are often more telling than the words that are spoken; the angry looks, the interruptions and the accusatory, you’re-never-there stares when homework is discussed. I once watched a mother hand over the feeding of a wriggling infant to my pupil during the meeting and suddenly had a terrifying insight into the extent of her responsibilities at home. She was in year 8. The quiet and studious child put an immense amount of pressure on herself in class, but seeing how much she had to deal with at home I suddenly realised why.

I dislike stereotyping but this is one of the times I allow myself the private fun of doing it. Parents come in certain types. There are the the list-makers, often alone, frantically writing down everything you say. There’s the studied casualness of the separated-but-we’re-cool-with-it parents, wound up so tight it’s obvious that there’s going to be a ruck the second they step outside. Then there are the parents that almost bring tears to my eyes, such is my longing for them to adopt me.

There are the classic pushy parents, who get irritated and sometimes aggressive if their appointments are not exactly on time; the workaholics who barely look up from their phones; and, worst of all, the ones who are always absent. The missing parents are invariably the ones that need to be there most, either because their children are out of control or quietly working miracles all on their own.

Then there are the unhelpfully hypocritical parents, anxious to hear about their children’s progress and outwardly supportive of my efforts to help them improve, but always slipping in anecdotes about how they were “never any good at maths/spelling/the periodic table/oxbow lakes”. As the implicit “and it never did me any harm” hangs in the air between us, I realise why their offspring never put in any effort. As far as they’re concerned, you’re either good at something or you’re not. I often wonder if it’s worth trying to explain the growth mindset, but the appointments are only supposed to last 10 minutes.

I once had a meeting with a single dad who I’d been told was “worse than Billy”. Given that Billy had terrorised me relentlessly for six months by this point, I was dreading it. Billy loved distracting me and my class by any means at his disposal. He would ask about my children, set me off on tales of mathematicians and their exploits, and ask “what is infinity, Miss?” with regularity. I wish I could have told him that just by asking these astutely rendered questions I could tell how smart he was. If only he put his mind to his work, he’d be great.

Enter Billy and his dad, the last appointment of the evening. Billy started grinning in an inane manner, as he did in class every day. Within 30 seconds, his dad smacked him around the head hard enough to make his eyes water and told him off for being disrespectful. He then leaned menacingly across the table towards me and sneered: “What’ve you got to say for yourself, then?” I realised pretty quickly that Billy’s behaviour was a coping mechanism for dealing with this aggression, and that the list of misdemeanours I had ready to mention would probably mean an even harder time for him, so I kept them to myself.

It’s not just the parents who are better informed after these meetings. I’m back in class the next day with a deeper understanding of where my pupils are coming from. I get why Emily wears black nail polish and sports such a questionable haircut – because her mother and little sister are so violently Barbie-fied it would push anyone over the edge. I see why Ryan interrupts me so loudly all the time – because he genuinely can’t get a word in edgeways at home with six siblings. I even understand why Lisa rarely has the right book for the right lesson – she is trying to spend her time with both parents equally, frantically flitting between them like some sort of demented moth.

I would never dream of criticising a parent (at least, not any more) because I am one now, and it’s a job that no one gets completely right. But there are times during parents’ evening when I would love to slip into a psychologist’s role and help families understand what they are doing to their children, because I’m sure they’re often not even aware of it. The suffocating, isolating, or even poisonous atmospheres some pupils are forced to breathe in daily before they rock up to school explains why they then ruin my algebra class.One final tip: don’t be like the the dad who shamelessly asked me out in front of his child. And his wife.

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The Secret Teacher

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