Secret Lecturer: Confessions at a parents’ evening
With Easter in sight, colleges are preparing for parents’ evening - a chance to offer praise where praise is due but also to share a few home truths with parents and guardians in front of students who may have kept them in the dark about under-performance.
I rarely get to see the parents I really want to meet … I wonder, resignedly, did the student intercept the letter to the parents? Did the dog eat it? Was it genuinely lost? Very few parents are just not interested - and some genuinely cannot make the time because of shift work or other reasons.
Bright students and their parents always seem to attend, which is great. But other than saying that their sons or daughters are absolutely brilliant students; they are a pleasure to teach and “keep it up” - plus showing some A+ examples of their work - what else can you add? The parents are fully on board, which is what every teacher strives for.
When parents get the full picture
The real game-changing conversations take place with parents who may not have the full picture. I remember one coming in with a student who had done no work since the start of the year. I began: “Now he’s here, perhaps he’ll tell us why he hasn’t done any work.” The student was squirming in his chair; he obviously didn’t want his father to know.
“No work - what do you mean?” asked the bemused parent. “Explain yourself! Why not?” There followed a long list of excuses - unable to do it, not enough time and so on - leading to a heated argument. I started worrying I’d really started something here but at the same time, from a teacher’s point of view, I thought, yes, got you!! It was a relief because at last someone with influence over that student was in the picture and could back up at home what I’d been saying to him for months. I had an ally.
Another problem is sporadic, sometimes constant absence from lessons, although often students come to college but hang out with friends around the campus. One student had been regularly missing classes for a day or two each week, I told her surprised parent. Every morning her mother had made her breakfast before going off to work and then seen the student return home in the afternoon each day and confirmed she’d been to college - though certainly not to my lessons! The truth only came out at a parents’ evening. More squirming!
‘You won’t tell them the truth, will you?’
Another poor attendee said to me: “My parents are coming tonight but you won’t tell them the truth, will you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Can you soften them up a bit?”
“No chance,” I said.
When I discussed attendance with his parents, they looked at him daggers drawn while he sat awkwardly in his seat. They went mad at him afterwards and screamed down the corridor, he told me later when I asked. He didn’t change his ways but he did pass his exams.
But sometimes parents’ evenings can be quite cathartic. I told one parent how their son was in such a close friendship group that whenever any group member said anything in class not linked to the lesson, it set them all off and concentration and performance levels were falling as a result. The parent told him in no uncertain terms that he had to sit separately from his friends. Next day he did just that. A rare yet welcome case of parent power.
A key problem among today’s millennial students is often an inability to think ahead. Technology - and I blame mobile phones - means everything is instant, be it information from the internet, music from Spotify, or pictures from Instagram. They live in the moment.
They only get out of it what they put in
They have to get away from the group mentality built up from 11-12 years at school where they have all collectively worked towards the end goal of exams. Instead, they have to get used to working on their own at college, an environment where they will only get out of it what they put in.
Helping students make this transition is the hardest task for a teacher. A few students master it straight away but most take up to a whole year until by the second year they are acclimatised and geared up to go to university or elsewhere where they have to work on their own. Our job is to get them from this collective mentality to independent learning in two years. And parents’ evenings often play a key part in building up this crucial life skill of independent learning.
I tell my students: “You won’t be going to interview with your mates’ grades; you take your own. So you have just got to do the best you can for yourself.” Or try to squirm your way out of it …