Counsellor’s Corner: Surviving Parent Night

When I first started in Student Services, I thought that parent-teacher interview night would be a walk in the park. After all, I am in perpetual contact with parents (at least that is how it feels sometimes) so I assumed that the evening, while busy for teachers, would be a relatively slow one for me. Boy, was I wrong!

It turns out that parent-teacher interviews often result in “bad news” at the little five-minute meeting between the parent and the teacher. After that meeting, parents go searching for a sympathetic ear. Their natural conclusion is to seek solace with a guidance counsellor who can help them (and their kid) right the ship. Suddenly you’re their new best friend.

I eventually realized that our mistake was to sit in our offices on parent-teacher interview night and wait for the drop-ins to show up. While we tried in vain to catch up on our email and erode the mountain of paper on our desks with a filing system that only we could understand, the parents would mosey on in and ask if they could ask “a quick question.” As we all know, there is no such thing as a quick question and a counsellor’s office is far too inviting to expedite matters. Inevitably the visit would turn into a 20 to 30-minute exchange dealing with the student’s struggles and sometimes (and I hated this) a critique of a colleague. Despite my best efforts to defend the teacher down the hall, some parents insisted on steering the conversation toward blaming the teacher – an age-old, broken record of an excuse to shift responsibility away from the kid (and, by extension, the parents) and onto the person charged with the duty of teaching 30 kids to master a certain volume of subject matter. Sometimes I would have to just stand up to end the meeting and direct the parent to a vice principal. Many of these encounters were frustrating for me and frustrating for the parent.

Something had to be done to make parent-teacher interview night more rewarding for both the visiting parents and the guidance counsellors. So, here’s what we did at our school: we locked them out! No parents were allowed into Student Services that evening. Since parent-teacher night was designed to allow parents to gain a snapshot of student performance so that new learning strategies could be put in place through to the end of the school year, we decided to reinforce the snapshot approach with quick “drop-in” meetings with parents. We literally barred the door by setting up tables in front of our office entrance. We hung two banners identifying who we were and we brought our laptop computers out with us in case we needed to look something up. As a collective, we agreed: NO ONE GETS INSIDE – an edict I broke five minutes after we first implemented this approach when a student and his mother began crying at our Student Services table. I brought them in, shared tissues with them, set their minds at ease, and 20 minutes later (!) they were on their way. After that we all agreed there should be a little bit of flexibility when it comes to letting them into our offices.

I can now say that, two years after adopting this approach, parent-teacher interview night has become a much more effective and efficient night for us. We make sure that we keep a stack of appointment slips handy so that students with more detailed questions or concerns can stop by to see us the next morning. Most significantly, parents are less inclined to complain about teachers when they are in an open space with potential eavesdroppers within ear shot. Now we get even more parents coming to see us after meeting with their kid’s teacher to see what can be done to right the proverbial ship; it’s just that now we have a five-minute chit-chat instead of 30 minutes of editorial agony on everything that is wrong with their kid, the staff and the system.

While our new approach is anything but a walk in the park, it sure is a lot better than feeling trapped in your office while a growing line of disgruntled parents wait (or pace) a few feet away from your door, anxious to air their grievances. In this particular instance, the parent lock-out was a winning strategy for both the parents and the counsellors.

By: Sean Dolan    

Sean Dolan taught for 20 years before moving into Guidance and Career Education six years ago. He is currently working as a high school guidance counsellor at St. Marcellinus Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario.