SCMP Saturday, September 15, 2001

Teachers forced to box clever to parry parents' inquiring jabs


Term has only just started. You slouch unwillingly into school, head slightly bowed. It is all a bit overwhelming. The chairs are small and uncomfortable and being in a new classroom is slightly intimidating. You are beginning to break out in a cold sweat as questions surface. Will the teacher like me? Will I see the board? Will any of my friends be there?
All natural questions for a primary age pupil, perhaps - but somewhat disconcerting in the mind of a parent well over 21.
Yes, it is the dreaded parents' introductory evening - an event that has been red-ringed in the diaries of many schools in these first weeks of term.
Parents are vaguely aware that it is a good idea to show some enthusiasm for these occasions. After all, it is a teacher's duty to be at school every day, so they should not complain if their presence is required every so often.
The scenario itself is a bit like shadow boxing. In the red corner, just next to the reading corner, stands the teacher - the fount of all knowledge and controller of the children's destinies for the next nine months.
Exuding a calm confidence, they cast surreptitious glances around the classroom to see if that dreadful mum is there who gave a colleague such a hard time last year. With the thought still in mind they gleefully think to themselves: "Now I have you just where I want. I have to put up with your darlings all year, so the least you can do is pay attention for an hour or so."
As they size up the assembled collection of designer dresses, sharp suits and assorted hairstyles the teacher takes a deep breath and launches sotto voce into the subtle mysteries of the curriculum.
Like a brig in full sail, once the tack begins - sometimes driven by hot air - it seems hard to halt, if not impossible. They breezily inform parents that their offspring will receive an education that would have befitted Albert Einstein, will be fitter than an Olympic decathlete and more sociable than Donald Trump on a god day. And all they need mum and dad to do is check the diary and listen to a couple of pages of reading practice each night. Okay, so the parents don't understand the jargon, but the evening doesn't go all that badly.
Meanwhile, in the blue corner, on seats apparently designed for misshapen midgets, sit the same dutiful parents. Attendance is part of the deal, and anyway, getting a good look at the teacher reassures them that their delicate offspring will not be eaten alive by - well, not yet.
Unfortunately many parents really do not understand what is imparted to them about the intricacies of today's teaching system. When they were in school independent thinking had not been heard of and mathematics was simply a question of sums. As for differentiation, the closest anyone got to that was placing Georgina near the board as her eyesight was poor. Integration? Forget it. Still, never mind. It all sounds jolly impressive and at least the bit about learning times tables still makes sense.
It matters not a jot how many times schools ask parents not to ask about individual pupils on the night. Yes, they are assured, you will get a chance to chat.
Forget it! As soon as the talk is over and staff members head for the door, making polite gestures that it is time to leave, the queue inevitably forms.
"Just wanted to say hello," says one parent. "Has Bartholomew told you he has macrame lessons every second weekend?" says another, and so it continues. Faced with this, the teacher's jaw slowly clenches and the smile begins to wilt.
Still, the ritual is a necessary one. Communication between home and school is crucial in an education system that places unprecedented demands on children. Maybe it would be better using video conferencing, but where's the fun in that?
Paul McGuire is the deputy principal of an English Schools Foundation primary school. Paul McGuire is the deputy principal of an English Schools Foundation Primary School.