After a long break, Labour Teachers will be relaunched soon under new editorship. Before that happens we will be sharing some posts sent to us during the hiatus.
Zeno is an RPE teacher who is in his fourth year of teaching in Bristol and the South West. He has been a Labour party member for nearly 7 years and used to dabble in journalism before he settled down to a more noble profession.
Parents’ evening should be something we all hate, but it’s actually more important than we realise. I don’t mean that it empowers us to improve behaviour or attainment. I think its most important role for society at large is as a vital way to start to burst through the bubbles we insist on living in.
If you strip it back to what it really is, the evening is 3 hours of awkward conversations where you shatter parents’ and guardians’ illusions about their little darlings. The fact that it usually follows an already hectic 8 hours or so of working day means that your ability to think and articulate is usually quite diminished. You stammer out some half-baked positive psychobabble and recite some grades which you know relate to a pointless assessment, against a target set by a computer with a very different agenda to yours.
The thing is though: I secretly love parents’ evenings. They epitomise a lot of the best things about the job:
- Being able to repeat the same jokes 30 times to different audiences and watch as they either flop like a badly timed bottle flip, or land perfectly, like a well launched one (if you don’t get the reference: just go into any playground and watch).
- Organising your life into 5 minute slots so that you’re far too busy to feel bored or tired.
- Explaining why RPE is really the most important subject in a world of decreasing tolerance and heightened existential dread.
All these things help to get me through an otherwise painful evening (and career) but what I appreciate the most is the ability to snoop on the way other people live.
A parents’ evening is much like being a fly on the wall of different families’ homes. There are the ones who regale you with their in-jokes and gentle joshing while the embarrassed teenager rolls their eyes. There are the parents who write down everything you say so that they can pass it on to the other side of the divorce at a later date. There are the students who you’ve barely heard speak who brighten up in front of their parents and talk to you like an old friend. And sadly, the conversations where you feel like you have to step in to defend a child from getting a hard time.
It truly is a unique aspect of the public sector job; those in the private realm don’t often find themselves teleported between so many households to see how ‘the other’ lives. Those happy in their comfy bubbles will vote to keep them that way. Those at the chalkface, or who make home-visits or run walk-in sessions of any kind, work between the contrasts, divisions and juxtapositions of our society.
The cliché that we all live in bubbles is due an update. Bubbles are soft and floaty and easy to burst. The chasms in our society are not so. Many people can’t name anyone who voted the other way in the referendum. Many people cannot see further than immigration as the reason for all the world’s problems. Political parties of all kinds rip themselves to shreds rather than compromise and work together.
I’m not suggesting that we treat parents’ evening as a door-stepping opportunity, an opportunity to highlight the effects of the brutal cuts or even as a place to slowly and clearly explain that learning about Islam isn’t the same as supporting ISIS. I just mean that we need to recognise that a special thing happens at parents’ evenings which doesn’t often happen anywhere else: people’s bubbles overlap.
What other mediums do we have for mixing out of our kinds? Almost by definition, the people you work alongside every day are from a similar social strata to you. Even if you knew the people who live on your street, they’d tell you of comparable house prices. The local Church or pub as a hub for a diverse community have much attenuated in influence. Even sharing a cinema screen with strangers on a date has become the living-room bubble of ‘Netflix and chill.’
Comprehensive schools are a huge opportunity for lives to cross over. Parents waiting for their appointments are introduced through their child’s friendships. Parents who hated school come back and see it from a different angle. Kids who play up to a role in class, snap out of it in front of the sheer variety of adults who genuinely care about them and their future lives.
I know we don’t exactly break down every barrier nor put the world to rights, but there is a real sense of multiple different worlds meeting. If you don’t believe me, look at the amount of effort that some parents put into looking as presentable as possible. Perhaps they are intimidated by a professional giving a face-to-face rating of their genetics and parenting. Or perhaps they realise, more than teachers do, that they are stepping out of their comfort zone, with their ears open, to listen to that rare thing: an opinion from the other side.