Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

An evening with...

Mr Drake nameplate

In these days of often anonymous electronic communication, teachers who don't make time for old-fashioned, face-to-face interaction are missing all the fun, says Jon Drake.

I've been told that, as the time approaches for stepping down from this noble profession, you suffer apparently the same sensation as a person drowning: your previous life flies before your eyes.

You reflect on the cyclical nature of things and the reappearance of lost theories that you are sure were first espoused decades ago to improve attendance, reduce truancy or challenge our nation's supposed poor literacy and numeracy ability.

As the grip of technology sharpens and communication with our varied stakeholders (known as 'the enemy' in the good old days) becomes ever more distant and electronic, you long for the meetings full of robust and vigorous interchanges with parents at consultation evenings.

As a young teacher, I dreaded the appearance of any parent whose child I had to admonish for some act of cruelty - for instance, the possible slaughtering of a frog in the pursuit of cardiovascular understanding or the extraction of blood from a fellow student in a manner more befitting Jack the Ripper than a qualified surgeon.

I had not learned, of course, the mathematical law of proportionality: the worse the child, the greater the chance of parental demeanour which would make it unwise to follow through on my assertion to colleagues that I would give said parent a piece of my mind.

It seemed to be the parents of middle-band students who caused the most uncomfortable evenings and two specific incidents from the mid-1970s spring to mind.

My first school served a very challenging area in which physical solutions to neighbourhood disputes were the norm and approaches to staff could be equally threatening. As Glen's father sat down, lent across the table to grab my tie and pull my face towards his expletive outlet, he started his tirade with "Now listen to me, Waterside!"

He then went into a five-minute outburst about my approach to admonishing (he used a slightly different word) his son in his geography lesson and what he would do to me if it continued. My memory was of remaining calm (hoping my not inconsiderable size may have some impact), wondering where the deputy head was and dodging a varied collection of foul language, moisture and the occasional piece of evening meal.

At the end of his diatribe he asked aggressively what my response was. The answer was simple: "I am Mr Drake, not Mr Waterside, and I don't teach geography," and I smiled warmly. To his great credit he let go of my tie, rearranged it neatly, apologised graciously and reminded me theoretically of what I would get if I ever "crossed his boy".

Not long after that moment of early professional development, I was approached by another parent at an evening of stakeholder bonding (or enemy enlightenment). Her son had been involved in a 'fight' during my lesson. The student was a lovely lad who had flipped apparently because of his best friend's comments about his sister.

How his sister was linked to the study of emulsions and the use of 'arsole' cans (their spelling not mine) was beyond me but, apparently, the subject of smell led to the inevitable damnation of each other's family members.

The parent thanked me for my handling of the conflict and then clicked her fingers. From behind a stage curtain emerged the insulted sister and she was duly presented to me as an example of radiant beauty which I was encouraged to describe in equally complimentary terms.

I am not sure what the politically correct wording is but I will leave the reader to reflect on the potential dilemma when confronted with a certain aesthetic contradiction.

Parents' evenings have always been a rich source of partnership, understanding, problem solving and occasional conflict and I hope that in the world of increasingly minimalist and technological communication they are never substituted or diminished by more distant formulaic reporting.

Education is a social and partnership-based activity designed to promote health, citizenship and to build a desire for lifelong learning. Open and professional discussions with parents will always remain an enjoyable, refreshing and, at times, humorous partnership which will always contribute to the richness of our profession - assuming I can remember their names and the beauty of their souls.

Jon Drake is a headteacher in Buckinghamshire.

Want to have the last word?

The Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you'd like to share your humorous observations of school life, please email Sara Gadzik at leader@ascl.org.uk ASCL offers a modest honorarium.

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