By Teachers, For Teachers
I had parent-teacher conferences the week before Thanksgiving. I always enjoy having a chance to meet my students’ parents during this time. I like sharing the successes and collaborating on some strategies for how to handle any challenges together as a team.
My conferences went well but as I came home and relaxed by checking my Facebook page I realized that parents often don’t view parent-teacher conferences as positively as I do. Many people spoke about their child’s conferences with annoyance, sadness, or even fear.
With that in mind, I asked my friends, relatives, and other acquaintances what they wish teachers would remember when meeting with parents. I was surprised and humbled by their responses.
The friend who spoke to me about this issue has five advanced degrees shared between her and her husband. She mentioned this not to brag, but to illustrate that even very well-educated people struggle with jargon outside their areas of expertise. When we sit down with parents, we need to make sure that we aren’t using words/phrases/terms that, while commonplace to us, are unfamiliar to people outside the world of education.
“We use every day math…” might explain a lot to someone who understands what that means, but to most people the words “every day math,” indicate the adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing done while figuring out the bill at the restaurant or grocery store, not a mathematics curriculum developed by the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project. If we are not careful, we can terrify and intimidate the very people we are trying to work together with…so make sure when you meet with parents you are using terms that makes sense to everyone – whether they work in education or not.
A more forthright acquaintance stated without hesitation that the all-too-common teacher line, “We rely on you to help us at home,” or any of its variations – annoys her. She and several others who echoed her thoughts wanted us to remember that while they want their children to succeed and learn, at some point, they want them to do it on their own. That means gradually releasing the responsibility for homework and assignments to the student and not checking every answer over their shoulder. One parent commented, “I might let my kid fail rather than stay up until midnight making a papier mache diorama of the solar system because she forgot to do it until the night before it was due.”
These parents asked us to remember that when we made our assignments – that parents were not “bad” if they allowed their children to make mistakes, miss assignments, or turn in “less than stellar” work. Sometimes, they are excellent parents who are trying to instill responsibility and work ethic in their children…even if it meant dealing with the challenge of watching them slip up now and then.
This sentiment came to me from several different people. It wasn’t specifically-centered around parent-teacher conferences, but several stated that they wanted to mention it at their conferences, but felt too uncomfortable to do so. For one of those individuals, it became an issue when his son returned home from school and told him that his social studies teacher had stated that anyone who voted for George W. Bush instead of John Kerry was either misinformed or stupid. When the father brought it up to the teacher at conferences, the teacher stated that he had explained to the class why Bush’s policies were terrible for the country and that he would not apologize for what he felt, was appropriate teaching.
This acquaintance told me, “The truly funny thing was, I really didn’t feel all that strongly about Bush. I just didn’t think it was that teacher’s place to be telling potentially half those students or more that their parents were stupid. Why couldn’t he have presented both sides of the political spectrum and said ‘What do you guys think?’ to his class? Had a debate? Let his students decide based on what they had learned?” This parent asked us to remember that teachers, as professionals, should be able to teach our students anything without demeaning those who feel differently than we do.
As a teacher, I was surprised at how often I heard parents tell me that they had been blind-sided in a parent-teacher conference by a teacher bringing up an issue that:
1) they had never heard of before
2) was a much bigger issue than one that could be covered in 15 or 20 minutes
As a teacher, make sure that if you want to talk about a student’s failing grades, extremely bad behavior, or any other serious issue, that the parent-teacher conference is not the first time the student’s parents hear about it. The parents I spoke to stated over and over again that they were nervous enough sitting down to talk about their child with a teacher without having to worry about hearing that their child was a bully or a failure for the first time several months into the school year.
Overall, this was the start of almost every parent’s response to my original question. Parents want us to know that they understand we teach 10, 20, 30, 100 kids every day. They do not expect us to treat their child like he or she was the only student we have, but they need us to remember that he or she is the only thing that matters to them. One parent reminded me of this when she said, “I know my son can be a bully, I’m working with him every day to be kinder to others, but his teacher told me that he can be ‘a monster.’ I started to cry in the conference. How can he learn to be kind from a teacher who views him like that?” Another asked me to tell teachers to please consider how our comments would sound if they were hearing them said about their child. “No one wants to be told that their child is reading three grade-levels behind their peers. So try to imagine how you would want that explained to you if it were your son, your daughter.” It was humbling to consider this as I looked over the information I wanted to share with the parents of my identified students, and I revised several of my statements with this thought in mind.
My profound thanks go out to all of the parents who shared their thoughts with me as I researched this article. As I stated at the beginning, it was surprisingly emotional to read how nervous so many parents are as they come into our parent-teacher conferences and devastating to read about how poorly some of these conferences go.
We will never be able to care about and love our students as much as their parents do, but if we try to imagine what our conferences would look and sound like from their chair hopefully we can share what we have learned about their children in a productive, kind, and collaborative manner.