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How to: Get the best out of your head teacher

By Guy Canning | April 2018

Good schools try to foster lasting relationships with parents, working in partnership with them. So how can you develop the best relationship with your head? Guy Canning, who has been a head teacher himself, provides the lowdown.

Take their lead
Some heads stand at the school gates at the start and end of every school day, but the purpose is most likely to greet and wave off students, rather than inviting parents to reel off every niggle they have about their little cherubs’ educational journey. That said, these heads will probably welcome light chit-chat from parents and many will use it as a good opportunity to get to know mums, dads and carers a bit better. Use this time constructively.

Be patient
The best modern heads will make their e-mail address available, but only use it if absolutely necessary – that is, to arrange a meeting to discuss issues around academic progress or a specific incident. For everything else – explanations for little Jonny’s continuing late homework, a request for leave of absence for that Disney holiday in April etc – approach the school admin team or an individual teacher or head of department.
Ideally, ask for your request to be acknowledged within a set period – say, two days. If nothing has appeared in your in-box by then, or your head’s secretary has not rung to fix a time, then re-send your e-mail.

Be polite
Acknowledge that heads are busy. For example, preface your request with phrases such as ‘I am sorry to bother you,’ and then state briefly why you wish to meet. Finish by detailing three possible times – it shows you don’t expect them to drop everything, just because you happen to have a free half hour slot this Wednesday afternoon. Never begin with a ‘Hi’ or a Christian name and try to end with ‘Best wishes’, ‘Kind regards’ etc. Heads are traditionally sticklers for manners.

Stay calm
Whatever the provocation and however much frustration you feel, keep your emotions in check. Do not take notes or wave your e-mail around. Just remember your key-points and what you want to gain from them. Conversely, do expect your head to write things down. See this as a compliment for it will show you’re being taken seriously. End by thanking your head for spending so much time with you. The more you are liked, the calmer you remain and the more likely you are to end satisfied.

Be realistic
If you have a query about the rate of your child’s progress, then a quick fix will not be possible. A word between your head and your child’s teacher will be, so aim for that.
Also remember that any head worthy of your investment will not change school policy as a result of one meeting. But you can establish your points so that in time things can be re-aligned and, for example, timings of parents’ meetings or the criteria by which prizes are won at Speech Day can be better communicated.

Keep things in perspective
At heads’ conferences, much of the chatter revolves around the latest parental showdowns. These can be sparked by anything, but old favourites include a son being put too low in the batting order or a daughter being deprived of a major part in the school play. Faced with these setbacks, parents can become savage. Remember that we all think our children are special – but no child is so special that the school should revolve around them.

Avoid clichés
‘I’m not a pushy parent’ is something we hear a lot. If you say this, then you are, for as every head knows, this claim is always followed by the dread word ’but’. ‘Lots of parents feel the same way’ is another one. This will also be untrue. Some might nod in sympathy as you complain to them over your cappuccinos, but this attempt to bully your head will not work.
‘I’m devastated’ is often said too. No you are not. You have not suffered a sudden death. Your house has not been destroyed by a hurricane. You are disappointed. ‘I’m a very successful businessman’ is an irrelevance, yet said far too often, particularly in independent schools. You don’t run a school. So don’t be superior.

Remember head teachers are only human
Few heads are ever told they are doing well and it can be quite an isolated, lonely job. What’s worse is that heads are brought up to believe that parents are the enemy – that all they do is whine. So treating your head as a friend will go a long way. Tell your head that s/he is looking well, especially towards the end of term when the reverse will be true. Compliment your head on the success of a recent event. That said, don’t always focus on the school. Select another topic from weekends, sport or holidays. This will act as a soother and clearly define you as being a class apart from the playground quibblers.

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