Meeting the parents: Advice for school leaders

Written by: John Rutter | Published:
Image: iStock

When parents demand a one-to-one meeting with the headteacher it can often signal a difficult conversation on the horizon. John Rutter offers some tips to handle such situations

Mr Davidson was in full flow – ranting about his son’s lack of application to his studies and the absence of support from his ex. Craig (his guidance teacher) and I could do nothing but watch when, with no fanfare, he unbuttoned and ripped off his shirt. Turning his back to us he pointed at the figure tattooed across his back, head dripping with blood with the ends of a cross extending down the tops of his arms.

“Mr Rutter, can you tell Glen who this is?” he asked.

“Erm, that’ll be Jesus Christ Mr Davidson.”

He turned back to his son. “See Glen, Mr Rutter knows this is Jesus f#cking Christ (I kid you not). How come, after 10 years in school, you still can’t recognise the face of our saviour.”

And so goes the parental meeting. They won’t all be like that but, as a senior manager in any school, it is likely that there are a fair share of strong personalities among your parents, keen to know that you are doing the best for their kids.

In Glen’s case, dad had initiated the meeting to see if we could stop his son heading home at lunchtimes for undercover relationships with his new girlfriend.

On other occasions I have been vaguely threatened by top lawyers for suggesting their child was engaged in bullying behaviour (and I would have been quite happy to go to court over that one), and accused of being a paedophile for reading a pupil’s defamatory and insulting tweets about staff.

Not all my meetings have been so negative. For many of the parents who come to see me there are concerns over academic attainment or relationships with certain teachers, worries about bullying and friendships, details of new medical problems or applications for time off to attend a family event or sporting competition.

In many of these circumstances it is a great experience to work with parents to sort out the answers to problems and to work on real engagement with those who, ultimately, have the wellbeing of our pupils so much at heart. Whether positive or negative there are some simple ways in which we can ensure these parental meetings are a success.

Delay if possible...

...but not for too long. It is often very difficult to have a meaningful meeting if you have absolutely no idea what it’s going to be about. Your office staff need to be well informed as to how your schedule works.

Parents may ring in wanting to see you immediately but the first line should be for admin assistants to screen the calls and find out if you are free. If possible (not always the case with sensitive matters) they should find out what the reason for the meeting is and say you will get back to the parent with an appropriate time to meet.

You should try to get back in touch the same day but, at the very latest, within 36 hours (that is, by the end of school the following day).

The reasons for delay are for you to gather information. It is never good to be on the back foot with no clue what the concern may be. You can always discuss it in brief with the parent over the phone (and this may well be enough to forestall a face-to-face) then get to work with guidance staff and others as necessary over what action has already been taken and any plans that have been put in place for the future.

Be accommodating with your timings

Remember that not everybody – in fact very few people – keep school hours free, so meeting at 11:30am on a Tuesday morning may well be out of the question for our working parents. If you can, have one evening a week where you can see parents later on or, if possible, meet up before school at 8am.

Although this will undoubtedly be one of your busiest times, it is easy to alienate parents by only being able to meet during the school day. If we are serious about proper parental engagement we do need to be flexible about meeting their needs.

Set the scene

Depending on the kind of meeting you’re intending to have, you need to give some thought to whereabouts it is going to take place. Many of my parents came to the school themselves. Not all of them have positive memories and especially not of being in the headteacher’s office. It may not, therefore, be the most comfortable place for them to meet, so have a back-up room available.

If it is to be in your office then there may be options available. Formality, and especially if there is a need to access information from the computer, is best done at the desk. Sometimes such a barrier is necessary. For a chat about sensitive personal issues and occasionally for other subjects including re-admittance from exclusion, I often favour the comfy chairs around the table by the window. It is hard for parents to be angry when they are sunk deep in cushions.

Occasionally, offering a cup of tea is a good idea. I usually make this the first question if there is a situation to defuse. Parents may arrive all ready for a rant and an argument but this can’t be done while the kettle is boiling, biscuits are being placed on plate and you’re having to rush around looking for milk. Instead of verbal sparring, therefore, there is time to catch up on life in general before settling down to much more civilised discourse over a cuppa.

Moderate your chat

Different types of meetings call for different approaches but there are some things that are pretty much always the same. Parents should be allowed to talk first, often for as long as they want and without interruption (unless they are being abusive or otherwise offensive).

Sometimes, those who arrive full of pent-up angst need time to blow themselves out before they can be reasoned with. I am always prepared to take far more negative comments than I would find acceptable if directed towards my staff.

Always remember that we are role models for our school – and our community – so we need to be polite and, occasionally (and this can be difficult), correct our parents when they overstep the mark with criticism of others or with inappropriate language. Whatever you do, however, do not become patronising – this, again, can sometimes remind parents too much of their own time in school.

At other times there will be more of a need for sympathy. The tea is still important but you should also have some tissues handy – more than once I have had parental tears in my room. Change your style and be prepared for a lengthy chat. As has happened to me on several occasions you may be privy to histories of past times and previous relationships that are really none of your business (but which may explain some of the problems you see in your pupils).

Conclusion

As the parental engagement agenda becomes more and more important to the future of our schools, parental meetings may well become more numerous. It is important as school leaders that we have the personal qualities to run them well – if we don’t, word will get around soon enough. Approach them with the same empathy and positivity as you do with all other aspects of your leadership role.

  • John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School


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