Judg­ment day: it’s time to meet the par­ents

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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