• Meaningful parent-teacher conferences
    November 14,2012
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    Parent conferences are a November tradition, although this year they’ve been overshadowed by Hurricane Sandy and the equally windy presidential campaign.

    Traditional, too, are website and magazine articles claiming to offer the secret to stress-free conferences or the 10 essential questions you should ask your child’s teacher. These tenders of advice are usually even windier and less helpful than the stump speech gales that blew out of Ohio.

    One former music teacher and gifted student specialist, now operating as an “education writer and consultant,” introduces her “ideas for meaningful conferences” by describing the “worst” conference she ever attended. It was complete with bumper-to-bumper teacher tables set up in the gym, hundreds of parents lined up waiting their turns to talk, and a three-minute limit per conference.

    I have to admit it does sound terrible and profitless. I also have to agree with the author herself when she concedes that most schools don’t do things this way. In fact, I don’t know any schools that do, if only because confidentiality is such a touchy subject these days that most school administrators would see that kind of invitation to eavesdrop as an invitation to a lawsuit.

    Before we review our consultant’s seven prescriptions, let’s talk about why and whether parents should attend conferences in the first place.

    When I was a kid, my parents never missed one. Occasionally, they’d actually come home having learned something useful and most of the time unflattering to me, but they didn’t go for the information they could obtain. They went because they thought that was what good parents did, and they wanted to be and appear to be good parents.

    Today many parents attend for the same reason, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Others have a particular concern they’d rather address in person than in writing or over the phone. Then there are the parents of students that teachers are particularly concerned about.

    The consultant objects when teachers remark to each other, as we sometimes do, that “the parents we need to see don’t show up.” She contends that teachers “need to see all parents” and poses the rhetorical question, “Isn’t our job enhancing the learning of all kids?”

    Yes, that is my job, but a conference rarely helps me do it in any significant way, any more than it significantly helps parents do theirs.

    Every year I hear from entirely responsible parents who tell me they have no concerns and don’t need a conference unless I feel we need to talk. If you’re one of these parents, please know that I don’t think less of you. Conferences aren’t magical, and they aren’t always necessary. I’m always willing to talk, but you can do your job, and I can do mine without our ever having to sit down together to confer about it.

    Assuming, however, that we were to sit down for a conference, let’s consider some of the consultant’s helpful “ideas.”

    First, the way she sees things, conferences definitely aren’t for talking about grades. In fact, if we do talk about them, we’ve “wasted time,” and we’re “complicit in elevating grades above learning.” Maybe this makes sense to a music teacher, but if you’re teaching an academic subject, refusing to discuss grades is going to leave parents who do show up feeling as though they’re the ones who’ve “wasted time.” Letter grades aren’t the tools of the Devil. If they reflect academic achievement, as they should, then talking about them is part of talking about learning, especially if you use them to discuss what the student did or didn’t do to earn the letter or number that appears on his report card.

    She correctly asserts that conferences should involve “two-way communication.” The fact is, though, that parents usually show up expecting to hear what’s happening at school. That’s why teachers usually do most of the talking. When parents feel they have information to contribute about their child’s academic progress, they certainly ought to be able to, and I’m certainly willing to hear it. But the consultant has in mind topics like how the child “enjoys spending free time” and what a student “says about other students in the class.”

    I often talk to my students about their outside interests, but unless those interests mean a student is playing video games instead of doing his homework, it’s not what I need to discuss with his parents at a conference. I’m also not permitted to talk about other students in the class. See also confidentiality and lawsuits. A former teacher should know that.

    Our consultant urges teachers to “share stories,” especially “narratives of kids’ behavior as learners.” She offers as a “heartwarming” example the time her son’s eighth-grade English teacher showed her “sketches of cars” her son had drawn “in his journal during free-writing.” The teacher’s conference assessment, “Aren’t these cool?” left her feeling the teacher was “paying attention,” knew her son, and valued his interests. Call me crazy, but if I were the parent, I’d be asking an English teacher why my child was drawing pictures instead of writing in his writing journal. As an English teacher, that’s what I’d expect parents to ask me.

    She concludes by suggesting that teachers tell the truth. So here it is. I’m willing every school day to talk to my students’ parents. But when you divide the time allotted for conferences by the number of students I teach, it amounts to around 15 minutes per kid. That’s why conferences are useful for an overview of a student’s progress but insufficient to address significant problems. There also isn’t time for a slideshow of the student’s personal life.

    Some parents are irrational and irresponsible, and some teachers are incompetent and unsympathetic. But I’ve attended more conferences over the years than I can count, and most of the time everyone there, parents and teachers, took his job seriously and cared about the outcome for the child and the student we were talking about.

    That’s the final truth and the good news.

    Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.
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