Online parents’ evenings have been a feature of school life for almost a year.
As one of the many aspects of life that have changed beyond recognition since Covid-19 swept in, these virtual meetings have actually had a pretty good reception from parents, who enjoy the fact that they can fit them into their schedules far more easily than face to face appointments.
There are also positives for teachers; meetings are kept focused and on time and they are easier to fit around their busy lives.
The signs are that teachers do like them and many would like them to continue beyond the pandemic, either as the sole approach or alongside in-person meetings.
A survey by TeacherTapp in late 2020 showed that a majority of teachers in state and fee-paying primaries and secondaries wanted to either keep virtual parents’ evenings when things returned to normal or offer them as an option alongside face-to-face meetings.
It’s strong evidence that teachers and leaders like virtual parents’ evenings, but that doesn’t mean that schools don’t have a few reservations about them. These concerns will be centred on the robustness of the technology and whether it’s the best way to deepen relationships with parents and carers over the long term. It’s a key concern because parents really do matter and their partnership with schools is incredibly important, especially after the year we’ve all experienced.
If virtual parents’ evenings are set to be part of the landscape for some time to come, how do we make them work as effectively as possible? The key challenge for teachers and parents is that there is so much to unpack during the five or ten minutes of an online meeting. It’s not surprising that one teacher we spoke to compared it to speed dating.
The key aim of the parents’ evening is to forge an alliance with parents and to deepen that connection between home and school. The human element of this process underpins everything.
Even face-to-face meetings aren’t the place to talk about a pupil’s progress over the entire year. The true value of these discussions can all too easily get lost while we talk about data and the facts that inform it, while the real focus should be on the future.
With so much to cover, time is of the essence, so it helps if teachers can make every minute count. If you take a continuous feedback approach – using technology platforms to communicate progress and performance of a child effectively in real-time then that changes the nature of parents’ evenings and will actually make the online approach much more productive.
Instead of feeling like a frenetic episode of speed dating, with two parties trying to convey too much information in too little time, it becomes a forum where teacher and parents talk about how to improve a child’s learning.
How can you make the most of an online parents’ evening? Here are five key pieces of advice:
- Find common ground
School and parents both want the best for the child, so parents’ evenings are a chance for teachers to show that they’re open, approachable and supportive. It’s the time to accentuate the positive and, celebrate achievements and highlight the importance of that home-school partnership.
- Make scheduling more straightforward by using an online parents’ evening scheduler
And remember to promote the parents’ evening through a range of communications channels so that everyone has an equal opportunity to book a slot. Think carefully about those parents who are less likely to attend because they are often the ones who teachers most need to see. Work out which communications channels they are most likely to respond to and use them.
- Focus on the future
Don’t waste the limited amount of time you have online by going over old ground. This information can be presented to parents before the meeting. Progress against targets and teacher feedback shouldn’t be a static, once or twice a year event as these can and should be communicated throughout the year. Focus the meeting on how to take things forward.
- Update before the meeting
Parents who are regularly updated throughout the year bring a different set of expectations – and questions – to parents’ evenings. Informed parents can form a more balanced and long-term picture of their child’s progress and they are less likely to be surprised by unexpected information and will be more open to discussing difficult topics such as behaviour issues. That makes for calmer meetings with greater purpose and less potential conflict. It’s fairer and less stressful for teacher, parent, and child.
- Preparation is key
Preparing these evenings well in advance is key. It’s best to put together a small team tasked with co-ordinating all aspects of the virtual evenings, from scheduling the event and promoting it through targeted communications, to checking on registration levels and sending out reminders when parents haven’t responded. This support team should also help teachers to use the parent booking platform and delivering or co-ordinating basic platform training if required. This team could also collect feedback at the end of the parents’ evening series and ensure that improvements are made to future events.
Before, during and after
Virtual parents’ evening checklist for school leaders
- Target messaging, invites, and reminders
Make sure parents know the date and when and how to book well beforehand and send reminders as the event draws closer.
- Issue protocol / guidelines to parents
For example, they should ideally log in five minutes before each meeting to make sure their connection works.
- Use an automated scheduler platform
Some purpose-built parents’ evening platforms allow teachers to customise their availability, making for a more ‘on demand’ and accessible model for parents. This can make parents’ evenings much more flexible, avoiding the scheduling challenge of making sure that all teachers in a year group participate in the same evening.
- Choose the right platform
Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet are highly regarded video meeting tools, but they require the school to set up each video meeting individually, which can be a lot of work. Purpose-built parents’ evening platforms can create the video meetings automatically and save time.
- Integrate a purpose-built parents’ evening platform
Importing the school’s management (MIS) database, curriculum and other records will make the set-up of parents’ evening faster.
- Provide parents with continuous visibility of grades and results
This ensures the parents’ evening meeting is focused on immediate concerns and the future, with the data in the background, informing target-setting.
- Provide teachers with troubleshooting instructions
- Share tips on audio considerations and visual background
For example, echo is usually reduced if both teachers and parents use headphones. Make sure your face is illuminated and avoid bright lights and windows behind you.
- Be mindful of body language
Be conscious of what viewers see on screen.
- Be ready to pick up a topic or issue after parents’ evening
- Seek feedback
Ask parents – and staff – to tell you what went well, and what could be improved by sending out feedback questionnaires.
- Don’t stop at parents’ evenings
Keep parents up to date throughout the year through continuous reporting and plan parents’ evenings as part of a wider interaction strategy with parents that includes a range of complementary channels, including emails, newsletters and direct meetings with parents.
- Firefly has published a free guide to the planning and effective management of virtual parents’ evenings. Download your copy here.
Simon Hay is co-founder and CEO at Firefly. Firefly’s Parent Portal and LMS solutions are now used by more than 1 million students, teachers and parents in 40 countries, including 70 per cent of the UK’s top performing schools. Find out more at fireflylearning.com.