Showing you care or showing off?
Parent-teacher meetings are intended to be an essential part of the school experience but sometimes it feels as if they are just an exercise in tokenism
Most of us make time for parent-teacher meetings, no matter how busy we are, but ever since the teachers' unions directed their members to hold them during school hours, it's been more difficult for those of us who are working to get there. This situation has led me to question their relevance or importance at all.
Having just returned home from one such meeting, I feel as I always do: delighted to have gone, relieved to hear how well my child is getting on, and glad that, once again, I made the effort to go. However, the whole set-up verges on the brink of tokenism. On both sides.
I go to please my kids and to show teachers I care. I also go to hear what the teachers have to say. However, most of what they say I already know from grades and comments on the school report, and from weekly tests I have to sign.
If you have a child in first year you'll have five minutes with 11 teachers. If you're up to date on the reports, and you haven't received any calls from the school, the likelihood of your being surprised by anything they say is slim.
So what's the point?
Don't get me wrong, when teachers tell me lovely things about my children I'm almost moved to tears. But that aside, you have to wonder, given the limitations, whether these meetings are as relevant as they might be and whether both sides would be better off if we just abandoned them altogether?
I have a friend who introduced herself to a new first-year teacher at the parent-teacher meeting, only to be greeted by a blank face, followed by a furtive search for her son's name and photograph among more than 100 others.
Her son was a straight-A student, but was unknown to the teacher, she said, because he 'must be quiet in class'. The teacher's subsequent cooing about his abilities fell on deaf ears. How could anyone take her seriously after that?
This sort of thing never happens at primary school parent-teacher meetings. When a child sits in front of one teacher for about 25 hours a week, they're going to have a relationship.
Dalkey mum Rose Thorne has seven children, ranging in age from 11 to 21.
"I enjoyed the primary school parent-teacher meetings most as the teachers knew our children so well," she says. "At post-primary level, you're dealing with awkward teens who may not be at their nicest. Discussing their personal behaviour with teachers is not always something you look forward to as a parent.
"I never held back on giving feedback to my teens. If I was told one was bone-idle, I'd pass on that message. I'd do the same if I was told they liked to stare into the middle distance in class.
"The meetings gave us a better understanding of what was going on."
Rose says that while there were times when she would have preferred not to go to them, she always did.
"In my experience, secondary school-going kids will tell their parents what's going on, because they know that if they don't, chances are, it will be mentioned at the parent-teacher meeting. They provide a link between school and home, which is helpful when you're raising young adults."
Rose believes that when children are going to fee-paying schools, as hers did, the question of teacher accountability has greater significance.
"I can be quite bolshy at parent-teacher meetings when required," she says. "While I'm there, I get a feel for whether a teacher likes my child or not. If there's a clash I will see it.
"And if the teacher is unreasonable, I will get the measure of them and make allowances for my child, bearing that in mind."
Another Dalkey mum, Louise O'Hagan-Ploug, has two primary school-going children, Oisin (12) and Anika (eight). She says that parent-teacher meetings are particularly useful when children are very young and unable to give much feedback.
"My husband, Per, would be nervous of not asking the right questions, so when we go he lets me talk and he quietly observes, only to come up with some interesting gem on the teacher's personality the following day, having slept on all he saw."
For Louise, as for most parents, the five-minute allocation is too short.
"Often I'm still asking questions and assessing the teacher while she's politely showing me the door," she laughs.