Across the country, thousands of schools, teachers, families and children spend time at Parents Evenings. Students and parents are trying to find out how mock exams have gone, and they need to meet their teachers to discuss that. For many there’s a similar sight and refrain: a small appointment window, a teacher with a big spreadsheet of data, and a snatched conversation about which bit of the mock exams didn’t quite go well for the student.
For the student, this is information they sort of already know – they’ve sat through the feedback lesson – but for the parent, there’s a whirlwind of numbers, data, topics and things that they can’t possibly assimilate all at once – and yet, they’re trying. Scratching little notes in a book, or on the back of the appointment sheet, in the hope of trying to remember something helpful by the time they have survived their tenth appointment and made it home.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
One of the key principles of the Department culture that we’ve been building together is that there should be “no surprises”. We don’t want to have all the information, centrally held by a spreadsheet in a teachers’ hard drive somewhere – it’s interesting, but we aren’t going to change it there.
We have to move information to the people who need it
To change the outcomes, we have to move the information to the people who need it. This is something I learned from the rather excellent TED Talk and book by Captain Marquet (@ldavidmarquet) – who did this kind of leadership transition on the somewhat sharper end of nuclear submarines in the US Navy! His book – “Turning the Ship Around” is an excellent counter-argument to top-down centralized management techniques, and I thoroughly recommend reading it, and trying to figure out how much you can apply to your school’s context!
So, what we do is move that information. We produce a letter for parents evening. On it, we put some key information:
- Student name, teacher name. Obvious, but this *is* a personalized letter, and it’s important that we know who to give each one to!
- What is our exam board? What is our specification code? When are exam dates – the timetable has now been released, so let’s share that with parents too.
- What did the student achieve last time? This gives us context for our conversation: we were *here*, and what’s changed since then?
- Information on the current performance of the student. We break this down by units for each paper they have sat, and give information to parents about topics/themes/content. Because our eight mark questions are also quite tricky, we track those specifically, and we show parents the performance of the student in those questions.
- Overall grades and performance, including the exam grade boundaries so they can look at where they stand.
- Changes in performance – have they improved since their last assessment, by how much, and what are we proud of?
- Information on how to access our revision resources (VLE address) and what they can expect there.
- Space to make notes for the parents & students.
Now obviously, this is a huge amount of information to pull together. If there was a need to write this, per student, it would clearly take hours – and while it’s a nice idea, it’s certainly not worth that amount of opportunity-cost, particularly after the team have just finished marking the mock exams in the first place.
But it’s just what we have in our tracking data anyway. So what we do is set up a template letter, and just run a mail merge – inserting the fields, one by one, from our spreadsheet, in to the letter form.
Once you’ve thought through what you want in your template, running the mail merge is really straightforward – and then Word will allow you to produce individual letters. Print them out, distribute them to your team – and voila! – a personalized set of information that makes for meaningful, effective and direct conversations.
Our parents find it really helpful to have the information all in one place, and it makes for effective and useful discussions with the student: they are not spending time processing what to think, or what numbers to write down.
Our students find it confirms the “no surprises” culture we’ve embedded in the classroom: they are able to talk to their parents about which bit of the paper they didn’t get on so well with, or what they’ve already identified in the feedback lesson.
Our teachers find it makes parents evenings efficient: we can get our messages and key thoughts across in a simple and effective meeting, cutting down time wasted, and making the conversations productive!
Move the information to the people who need it, with a mail merged parents evening letter. Try it? Let me know how you get on, and what you do with it? I’d love to have your examples, thoughts and feedback!