Don’t judge a book by its cover
Gwen Byrom thinks we need to see school-home communication from a parent’s perspective to avoid problems arising from our own misconceptions.
Steve was the father of a student in my boarding house, many years ago. He was an imposing figure, and not just because of his considerable size: dressing predominantly in black, with boots, silver rings on each finger, tattoos and a shaven head, he wasn’t someone who you could easily miss. Certainly not someone to trifle with.
Steve was spoken of in hushed tones in the staffroom, and on more than one occasion staff spoke of their apprehension in the run-up to parents’ evenings, about whether Steve would be accompanying his partner to hear about their daughter’s progress.
Steve never attended parents’ evening. In fact, he rarely set foot in the building, even though he would always be in attendance. He would regularly drive up to the school at the weekend for family days out, waiting outside, sending texts until his daughter appeared, then reversing the process at the end of the day. This, in some quarters, added to his mystique.
For all his imposing appearance, Steve was, in fact, very nervous about interacting with the school. Independent education was not something he had experienced himself, and it was clear that the whole experience made him feel like a fish out of water – far from being the fierce figure manifest in most minds, he was a gentle, deeply shy individual who was quite intimidated by the school staff. He was a talented artist too: on my wall at home I have a very fine pencil drawing of the school, drawn by Steve as a parting gift to mark my leaving.
We are at great pains in school to cultivate an environment where everyone is accepted, children develop resilience, confidence and the ability to challenge stereotypes and recognise their own preconceptions. But when it’s Friday afternoon and your PA alerts you to the fact that Mrs Smith is on the phone again, the ability to recognise our own preconceptions and challenge our own biases can be put to the test. Sometimes we forget that when parents engage with our schools, they are bringing with them their own school experiences and preconceptions about what your school is about.
Outward appearances can be deceptive and even the most confident of parents can actually be quite unsure of themselves. The uncertainties and contradictions inherent in parenting, and the desire to be a good (rather than good enough) parent affect everyone with children. In addition, it is worth remembering that the bulk of parents’ day to day information about the school is not garnered from your carefully worded website or weekly newsletter, but from their child – who is viewing the school through their teenage eyes and putting their own distinctive spin on every situation.
Lost in translation
Now move this school to an international setting where day to day business is conducted in a language different from the parent’s own mother tongue, and the misconceptions and barriers this raises are magnified tenfold. Communication then becomes complicated by concerns that the nuances of a situation are not being understood, on both sides.
So the parent who seems remote, who cancels meetings or is keen to get through parents’ evening as fast as possible may not be too busy to engage with their child’s education. Instead, they may be nervous about saying the wrong thing and embarrassing their offspring, or like Steve, quite intimidated by the school, and the setting. When faced with an angry parent, bear in mind that this anger may arise from concern about being clearly understood. The apprehension about how you might respond and concerns about preserving face (both yours and theirs) combined with a desire to make sure that you really, really, understand what the problem is can come across as aggression. The demanding or picky parent may simply be sensitive to the pressures on parents to get everything right, making them fearful about making a wrong decision which will negatively impact on their child’s future prospects.
Read the book, not the covers
Of course, that’s not to say that we don’t meet remote, irate or demanding parents who are simply that. But perhaps we should pause, and when faced with yet another meeting with Mr and Mrs Smith who simply must discuss immediately the intolerable situation arising with their child, channel your inner Steve. Don’t judge the book by its cover.
Gwen Byrom is the Director of International Education Strategy for North London Collegiate School International, overseeing the operation of NLCS schools in Dubai, Korea and Singapore. She is a former President of the Girls’ Schools Association.
For more about Gwen and NLCS International, please see www.nlcsinternational.co.uk