Judgment day: it’s time to meet the parents
It’s the season for parent/teacher meetings (PTMs). Most parents must trot along dutifully to these at some stage in their child’s schooling. Many must be secretly dreading the prospect: if only because the possible pitfalls and potential for embarrassment are so enormous.
For the new and uninitiated, these can be daunting events. It’s not just the pupils who are on show and being judged, it’s their parents too: mostly by other parents, quick to spot solecisms of style or dress. One wrongly chosen garment – one skirt too short for Mother, one check shirt too loud for Dad – could spell social suicide and prove fatal to the family reputation.
The social stakes are higher still at top independent schools such as mine. Don’t think soggy sandwiches, squash in plastic cups, sweaty sports halls or crushed conversations on shaky plastic chairs. Do think dozens of well-heeled parents sporting blazers, bright scarves and expensive moccasins, gathered noisily, out to impress. Many already seem to know each other from expensive ski resorts or Caribbean beaches: “Dahhling! How nice to see you so soon after Mustique!”
Everyone looks so confident. And, of course, everyone in the room has one happy factor in common: they can, seemingly effortlessly, afford the extravagant fees.
On top of appearing super-stylish, everyone looks rather pushy, too. Witness the sharp-elbowed struggles that can take place to stake a claim in the queue for that precious five minutes with Sir or Miss. Only last year, Timothy Hobbs, head of Hall School, Wimbledon, had to fight off the demands of some uber-pushy parents, complaining about just about everything at his school (“Only 19 out of 20 in her spelling test!!”), in the Royal Courts of Justice. Hobbs identified a new type of independent parent: more demanding and far more prepared to carp and complain than the genteel majors and diplomats of old. Even in well-heeled boarding schools, the atmosphere at PTMs is becoming more brisk and purposeful, with a businesslike edge creeping into conversations.
So what to watch out for, for the uninitiated? How does one avoid some of the pitfalls?
Well, there’s Pushy Mother to look out for, for a start. Well practised on these occasions – she has, after all, guided two other children through the same school and knows just about everyone present, even seeming on familiar terms with the forbidding-looking head – she never stops talking and is guaranteed to take far more than her allocated five minutes with each teacher.
Meanwhile she is oblivious to the frustrated queue building up behind her. Naturally any obvious overimpatience from other parents would be impolite on such occasions. But there will still be fidgety looks, as the conversation winds on interminably about Sophie’s trials and tribulations.
Even the most tolerant teacher will find their patience tried by such a mum and may be tempted to try to cut off communication. After all, they can see what She can’t – the line of other parents building up behind her, like some exasperated British Rail buffet queue.
Even more intimidating for new parents might be Glamorous Mother: dressed up to the umpteenth degree (“And you said I only needed to dress casually!”), teetering on heels so high she’ll have needed planning permission for them, or flaunting stonkingly expensive polo boots cut from the hide of some endangered creature. Men and women alike will find it impossible to look away. Yet, endearingly, the yummiest mummies may be here to discuss the spottiest, spuddiest students: the hereditary principle counts for naught.
But parents aren’t the only ones who can be irritating – or mesmerising. Some teachers are just as bad. Take the Career Teacher, who won’t really listen to a word Mum or Dad has to say, as he/she is far too full of his/her own self-importance. Always carries an iPad and looks at the figures, charts and tables on the screen, rather than the actual parent. Often heard across the hall laughing loudly, wearing a suit that’s just as loud. Parents should be grateful they only have to put up with such bores once a year. Whereas their poor children…
Or how about the teacher who’s the Over-Enthusiast? He/she means well, has a touching otherworldliness and is fine for a few short minutes, but never knows when to stop droning on about a favourite subject. Now it’s the parent with the problem of beating a hasty retreat. Does Sir really need to bang on in such detail about medieval poetry? Again, pity the poor pupil who can’t escape so easily.
And there are plenty of other irritants and pitfalls. There are all the usual opportunities for getting names wrong that come with only meeting parents once a year. This is why the custom at most schools now is for parents and teachers alike to wear name badges.
What’s more, most independent schools are sure to have someone famous tipping up unexpectedly, as a parent: “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” you find yourself saying to a household-name television presenter. (Do you really let on that you’ve read about their bitter divorce, currently plastered all over the tabloids, while Mum and Dad are still smiling so sweetly at each other, in front of little Hugo?)
At more exclusive schools, such difficulties can be compounded by the embarrassment of getting people’s titles wrong too: calling, for example, Lord or Lady So-and-So merely “Mr or Mrs”. I once overheard this guilty confession from one shamefaced young teacher: “OMG — I forgot to bow to Lord Smug!”
And pity the poor teacher who has to deflate the expectations of the unreasonable parent, who will insist that “Oxbridge” must be on the agenda for their son/daughter, when everyone else at the school can see it’s totally inappropriate. Times have changed since Grandpa went there, back in the Fifties, on the strength of his rugby or rowing, to study land economy. Politeness and tact is needed here to steer parents towards a more realistic option: “Now, how about looking at Lancaster?”
There’s also the added irritant for the teacher that, these days, the boy or girl under discussion will often accompany Mum and Dad to the meeting. Again, there are all sorts of opportunities for misinterpretation. How can you say what you really think when the little horror currently making your life a misery is staring beatifically from behind Mother’s well-groomed hair?
In contrast, many a time have I found that the most difficult pupils can have charming parents (one of life’s little ironies). Equally, there will be times when teachers inevitably find themselves thinking: “Now I know where he/she gets all that attitude from!”
Looking out for potential pitfalls like these will help nervous parents – and, indeed, new teachers – negotiate the social minefield of the PTM. You’re sure to encounter these types there.
Boarding School Beak teaches at a top independent school. You can follow him on Twitter, where he is @BoardingBeak
Testing times: to the dismay of some teachers, students often accompany their mother or father to the meeting