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Top prep school head tells how to get the best from your teachers

This summer’s great debate in the press began in July with the Labour MP Alan Milburn’s report for Gordon Brown on social mobility. After ‘discovering’ that “parental interest has four times more influence on attainment by the age of sixteen than does socio-economic background,” he declared that he wanted “more pushy parents, not fewer.”


This started off a string of articles loosely based on guides to parenting with some writers urging parents to get into school and demand attention for their children and themselves whilst others voted very strongly for allowing children to find their “own motivation”.

Many teachers report increasing problems with managing parental expectations

Stanley Ann Dunham, the mother of Barack Obama, was held up as the ultimate ‘pushy mother’, getting the young Barack to work for up to four hours a day before he left for school each morning whilst they lived in Indonesia.

Minette Marrin, writing in the Sunday Times, recounted what it felt like to be a child of a pushy parent. She recollects how the “extreme anxiety regularly made me throw up because I had been encouraged to be so desperate to win.” And things don’t seem to have changed. In fact, many teachers report increasing problems with managing parental expectations.

There are two young women journalists who have written the Seven Secrets to Successful Parenting based on defining seven types of parental personalities and styles, labelling them as “Pause Parents, Tuned-in Parents, Cheerleader Parents, Physical Parents, Sorted Parents, Commando Parents and Laid-Back Parents,” in a bid to explain what is happening.

Karen Doherty and Georgia Coleridge have recently been describing their findings to a number of head teachers at seminars in the hope that, by recognising these types of parents and their behaviour, teachers should feel forewarned and therefore forearmed.

Parents are people with hopes and fears and the best thing we can do is work together – not fight each other

An eminent educationalist visiting from the USA turned to me, in a recent conference, and incredulously asked: “Do teachers in the UK feel that they have to prepare for battle every time they go into the classroom? Is this what they are having to waste their energy and precious teaching time on? These parents are people with hopes and fears and the best thing we can do is work with them – not fight them.”

Of course she is right but the growing media hype makes even the sanest parent feel that they are not doing their job properly if they are not in the classroom every day demanding to know what their child is doing, what they are eating and who they are playing with.

This is where some problems arise. Every “just five minutes, please” from each parent multiplied by fifteen more in the class means taking 75 minutes out of the teaching day, or out of time spent getting to know each child really well. Often, teachers feel that they are being criticised, that they must be on the defensive, or that they must spend hours painstakingly answering lengthy notes or emails.The result is that good, caring teachers lose confidence and, by having their professionalism and knowledge of children constantly called into question, more and more of them decide to use their talents and energies elsewhere.

Every “just five minutes, please” from each parent multiplied by fifteen more in the class means 75 minutes out of the teaching day

The difficulty lies in the misunderstanding of what it is that actually helps a child succeed. It is very evident to all teachers that children from interested, loving parents do often succeed whereas children, whose parents regard education as having little value, often do less well.

Children who come from homes where there is discussion, conversation, debate, play and social interaction between all members of the family, start school with a love for learning, excitement, enthusiasm and a determination to please their parents and teachers by giving of their best.

Children, whose parents disliked school, had little respect for teachers and who remember their own school days as a time of failure and humiliation, have a much harder time and enter school anxious and already disadvantaged.

So, the children who start off doing well build on their success because, by being less anxious, their brains can work so much better, absorb more information and build more connections. For less advantaged children the reverse is so often true.

The real danger occurs when the children of bright, articulate parents (who want their child to achieve too early or excel in areas where they are less naturally talented), begin to feel that they are failing.

As teachers, we watch this happening; the open, happy, bouncy child starts looking a little worried, they watch other children more carefully, they stop putting up their hands, they can start picking fights or say that they are feeling ill and all too soon the work starts to deteriorate.

The real danger occurs when the children of bright, articulate parents begin to feel that they are failing

Sometimes, all becomes evident later when families break up, but often it is nothing more than a worried, anxious parent asking too many questions of their children when they are tired after a busy day.

Try to put yourself in your child’s position. Imagine if you returned from a hard day in the office to be confronted by a barrage of questions about the minutiae of your day including what you had to eat, been given a quick snack then asked to sit down and get on with more work! How would you feel? Add to that the constant pressure of someone else sitting at your shoulder whilst you were doing this work, giving you advice, asking you questions and making comments on your performance. Would what your partner saw then really represent your attitude and competence in the workplace.

Yet so many parents judge their child’s performance by their attitude to and their ability in homework, or by how they respond to questioning. Then they confront the teacher with these ‘findings’!

A wise and wonderful mother at my own school summed up the situation that many young parents face: “What did you do at school today?” she asked her son. “Nothing,”came the reply. “Did you play with anyone?” – “No”. “Was there anyone at school today?” – “No one”. “You were there on you own?” – “Yes! Can I go now?” He ran off happily, keen to escape.

After bringing up four successful, highly motivated and hardworking children, this parent had the experience to know that this was not the best way to find out how well her little boy was doing, that there was nothing to worry about and that he just wanted to go out and play! – Nothing more sinister than that.

The reality is – children do better when their parents are involved. Being involved with your children takes time, effort, interest and commitment but by starting this at home you will sow the seeds of the love of learning and life. Then, when your children go to school, be prepared to see their teachers as partners in making your children the best they can be. Work together in a spirit of collaboration, with empathy and support and you will find that the teacher will do everything in their power to facilitate success. After all, it is a ‘win-win’ situation: your child is happy and hardworking in a secure environment of mutual trust, you feel confident in your choice of school and the teacher gets the ultimate satisfaction of ‘a job well done’.

Work together in a spirit of collaboration, with empathy and support and you will find that the teacher will do everything in their power to facilitate success


  • Be aspirational – not pushy. 

  • Build a relationship – as you would when meeting someone whose opinions you value and respect.

  • Give your child time to settle before coming into school demanding answers to questions concerning the content and delivery of the curriculum as this will take time to bed down until the teacher gets the measure of the class.

  • Let your child develop a relationship with the teacher without being influenced by your first impressions. The relationship could be damaged if the teacher feels threatened. It is likely to blossom if there is a feeling of support and friendship.

  • Leave your own experiences of school behind you and take this as a chance to build a new relationship with someone who is going to be very influential in your child’s life, for a whole year.
  • If there is a problem, find the right time to raise this with the teacher. Ask when would be convenient to meet as you would like some help and clarity about something that is causing you and your child concern. Mornings, drop-off time and when all the children need to be welcomed by the teacher are not good times! Any conversations in this pressured environment will not be productive as the teacher will be conscious of the demands and needs of all the children.
  • A quick word/note of encouragement or thanks at this time will make the teacher’s day. All the children will benefit from a teacher who feels she is doing a good job that has been noted.
  • Keep all correspondence brief. Try to talk face-to-face. Remember, answering notes and emails takes up valuable teaching and preparation time.
  • If you have to arrange a meeting, make sure that you keep to the facts and take time to listen to answers. Being on permanent ‘send’ will not move anything forward. Come with an open mind and willingness to problem solve.
  • Share the problem and offer to help so that any remedial action becomes a school/ home solution.
  • Never talk about perceived worries with your friends in front of the children. The children will soon pick up that the teacher they wish to respect and value has not got the trust and respect of parents whom they love, trust and respect. This leads to conflict in the mind of the child particularly if the parent’s and child’s view of the teacher differs and causes unnecessary worry and anxiety.

Diana Watkins, headteacher, school inspector and former Chairman of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS)