x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A winning team

By simply taking time to establish dialogue and discuss issues of education progress, parents and teachers can build formidable partnershps.

When you find yourself at the mall buying poster board for a project on Mars or trawling the internet with your high-schooler for a PowerPoint presentation, it's a sure sign the school year is fully under way. For many parents that means that it is time for a chat with the teacher or, if your son or daughter is in high school, teachers. Whether it is a meeting to discuss your child's learning style or simply a desire to find out about this year's curriculum and how you can support the learning at home, these are conversations worth having. And, educational consultants advise, the earlier in the school year the better.

As the mother of two daughters - ages 32 and 14 - I have attended my share of parent-teacher meetings. I have stood in long, snaking lines of parents in dim high-school auditoriums, waiting for five minutes of a busy teacher's time. Many of these conferences were about maths scores or French tests. But others were about attitude or confidence - those ephemerals that have such an effect on a child's learning. When my oldest bit a classmate in preschool, her teacher and I had some honest, problem-solving sessions about anger management. When my youngest felt she and her fifth-year teacher weren't communicating well, I set up a meeting. I won't say that I wasn't nervous or that I said everything on my mind, but their relationship somehow improved afterwards.

Parents and teachers. We are a team. And the stronger that partnership, the more our children will be able to make the most of their school years. "Communication and meaningful partnership with parents is the only way to ensure a pupil really does achieve their very best," agrees Chris Nourse, the principal of Al Muna Primary School in Abu Dhabi. That philosophy is written into the school's mission statement. "We endeavour to provide a safe and nurturing community where parents and caregivers are seen as valued partners in establishing the foundations for lifelong learning," Nourse reads from the poster hanging on his office wall. This means growing a "culture of openness, approachability and teamwork with parents", as he calls it. "Honest and open dialogue with parents is just as important as a robust curriculum and great facilities," he explains.

The newly opened Aldar school has created many ways to encourage that dialogue. The school publishes a weekly newsletter to keep parents up to date. Parents are given the teacher's school e-mail address - as well as the principal's - for easy communication. The school has set up a parents' room so that mums and dads with children in the same class can meet weekly to connect, arrange play dates, and generally support one another. In addition, the school holds "open days" so parents can work alongside their children and see the school in action. Helping Hands, a group of volunteer parents who come in to hear and help children read, and Friends of Al Muna School, which helps to organise special events, give parents ample opportunities to get involved.

Nourse even hosts regular "meet the principal" coffee mornings to discuss issues relating to school life. Promoting an "ethos of approachability" makes it possible to "nip problems in the bud, rather than letting situations stew for days and weeks", Nourse explains, admitting that some parents, when called in to speak to teachers or administrators, worry that they will feel like naughty children themselves. "But after speaking to us they soon realise we all want the same thing: happy children making good progress in school," he says.

Remo Rodgers has been teaching for 28 years, 11 in his native India, 17 at the Cambridge High School in Musaffah. The long-time art teacher - he also teaches geography, history and maths and is coordinator of the senior boys - says that he seeks a common ground when meeting with parents. "My approach is: 'You're a parent. I'm a parent. Let's talk!'" He often opens with a neutral topic - "a conversation about life in general", as he puts it - that takes the pressure off the child.

Rodgers also stays cognisant of cultural differences. Talking in the buzzing hub that is the school lobby, he glances around and grins. More than 70 nationalities are represented at Cambridge. "In the subcontinent, there's more pressure on academics," he explains. "In the West questions from parents tend to be more about a child's emotional adjustment and well-being." As an art teacher, Rodgers is sometimes in the position of telling a parent "from my part of the world", that their child has a real talent in art. "'Oh, really? I had no idea!' they'll say," he adds.

But whatever a family's origins, two principles guide his conversations. Let's be honest, he tells parents. What are your real concerns? "Then they can say, 'Well, actually I'm a bit worried about -'" That's when you sit back and listen, he says. "In between the silences you can get the unspoken message. Listening, in my experience, is where you find out things." With parents still coming to chat with him long after their children have graduated, Rodgers treasures what he calls "a delicate honesty" that can grow up between parents and teachers. "With both parents and teachers intending to do good, you're halfway there," he says.

Lucia Burgio Farah values the conversations she has with her daughters' teachers. With both girls - one is 13, the other six - attending Al Kubairat School since kindergarten, there have been ample opportunities for dialogue, she says. "When I've knocked on the door of any primary class, it has been opened. Maybe the teacher will say, 'I can't talk right now. But I'm free at such and such a time'." In between these meetings, Farah finds the daily diary sent home by primary teachers and e-mails with her older daughter's high-school teachers good communication boosts.

What she doesn't always find fruitful are the school-wide conferences organised for an afternoon or evening. "I find those 10 minutes very restrictive," she admits. "I'd like to see more dialogue in a more relaxed atmosphere." In the past, Farah has organised informal dinners for families and school staff. "It's great when the teachers can drop the mask of teacher," she says. Another way she keeps the conversation going is to volunteer in her daughters' classes. Last year she helped edit the yearbook. "Sometimes we ask a lot of teachers. We need to remember the student load they carry. We need to give a bit back."

Although Farah has never faced serious challenges with her daughters, either academically or socially, she says: "If a teacher told me one needed some extra support, I would have no problem with that. I trust them. After, all they are with my kids all day long."