Teachers are naturally protective of what goes on in their classrooms. The experiences shared between them and their 30-odd children feel like something ‘outsiders’ wouldn’t understand, like something best kept private. Invaders, however well-meaning, are most certainly unwelcome.
Parents, too, can be viewed as ignorant of what it takes to run a classroom – ignorant of what their own children are really like in school, and worst of all, firm believers that they’re some kind of expert in the job. After all, they went to school once…
However, breaking that circle of privacy and reaching out to difficult parents can pay dividends in the long-run.
That’s certainly been the case with a Year 6 child I teach, who is a Jehovah’s Witness. For years, her mum had pulled her out of vast chunks of the curriculum. During Year 5 she missed weeks with her class, having been removed from their study, and ultimately their production, of Macbeth – the nature of the witches being ‘incompatible with her beliefs’. This was just one example of many issues that had come up year after year, to the enormous frustration of her teachers. The child didn’t seem to feel like a full member of her classes, or indeed the school.
Her detachment from school was such that she didn’t start writing at any length until Year 4, despite her reasonable aptitude. So, while looking at our Year 6 plans and noting a number of red flags – including the study of Charles Darwin and a class reader about an angel – my heart sank. Her Year 5 teacher had simply wished me luck, and told me I’d never get her to go on the Year 6 residential trip. Another advised me to avoid her mum. However, I got lucky when I had another approach thrust upon me…
That luck came when her mum volunteered as a helper in the school, close to the summer holiday. I knew her daughter would soon be in my class, so I took the chance to talk to her about the year to come and how to be sensitive to their beliefs.
From then on, I took the initiative. I rang her the following week to ask some questions I still needed the answers to. I read her some key passages from our class reader and talked her through some elements of the residential trip that had made her feel uncomfortable. We built up trust. By the end of that first term she said she trusted me enough to teach her daughter anything in the curriculum, without further consultation.
She spoke to me about how, in previous years, it had always felt to her that teachers had tried to ‘sneak in’ content incompatible with her beliefs. Hearing about it after the event, she would then react angrily. She’d always had an adversarial relationship with the teachers at the school, and her daughter’s education had suffered as a result. Yet it now seemed that some productive conversations were all that were required to break the cycle.
Once her mum began to like me, the girl did too. She started to report positive experiences of school back home, and tried harder to win my approval through her work. She went from someone working below age-related expectations to someone who’s now in with a fair chance of passing all the big three.
And all it took was to make her parent feel like a valued part of the school experience. I’m now looking at which parents to target next year!
Louis Walker is a primary school teacher based in Essex