Hmmm….Parent Teacher Conferences??
They appear to be straightforward and simple. You show up, ask a few questions, listen to the teacher, ideally review some of your child’s work.
If you’re lucky, you already know your child’s teacher and really like him or her.
If not, you know his her name, and can possibly pronounce it correctly. You may be familiar with his or her visual cues, such as hairstyle, choice of dress, and tortoise rimmed glasses that remind you of Mrs. Pinchbeck, your favorite fourth grade teacher.
She greets you at the door. If in an elementary school, you get stuck sitting on a blue chair no bigger than your six year-old’s bottom. At a middle school, you have the luxury of sitting in a larger seat, but it’s a cold metal chair, prompting you to transform your wool jacket into a makeshift pillow. Within moments, you are sitting face to face with an adult who spends as much, if not more, time with your child than you do each day.
Given the nature of the event, the conference can easily gloss over what you are “really” thinking and feeling. You are not, after all, sitting across from your therapist or best friend. I’ve mentioned one of my favorite books on parent-teacher conferences, Essential Conversation by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. In her seminal study of parent-teacher conferences across the nation, Lawrence-Lightfoot (2003) found that parents come to the table with “ghosts in the classroom” – experiences of their own childhood when they were the student sitting in the chair, beholden to the teacher’s expectations and judgments.
There is an element of power to a parent-teacher relationship. She grades your child’s schoolwork, is the official arbiter of the curriculum, and has the power to discipline your child during the school day, or at least in her class. You, however, know your child in a different way than she ever will – throughout time, from birth to present day – and are the eyes and ears of what your child is experiencing at home. You both want your child to learn and do well. Yet neither of you have the power to live your child’s life.
“I stand here ironing,” writes Tillie Olsen after receiving a phone call from her daughter’s teacher, “and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” In this story, Olsen narrates the inner life of a mother who like the teacher wants the best for her daughter. The mother does not assume that she has the magic key for supporting her daughter, and she wants to protect herself from what she sees as the teacher’s judgment of her parenting. The story continues with excerpts of the phone call interspersed with the mother’s self-talk:
“I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about
your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a
youngster who needs help and whom I’m deeply interested in helping.”
“Who needs help.” . . . Even if I came, what good would it do? You
think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you
could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that
life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.”
And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total?
I will start and there will be interruption and I will have to gather it all together again.
Or I will be engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what
cannot be helped. (Tillie Olsen, 1953 , pp. 9-21)
For over fifteen years, I have been on the side of the “teacher” in parent-teacher conferences, and have benefited from stories such as the one by Olsen above to knock me out of my comfort zone to experience the needs, struggles and dreams of someone other than myself….of someone who also cares deeply about my students’ education and well-being: my students’ parents.
So, what are parents to do? What are the three key things we can do to ensure a productive parent-teacher conference? When meeting with teachers about our child(ren), we are bringing together an array of experiences, values, and voices. It’s essential that we do not discount our own life experiences since we, too, are learning and growing in “this thing called life.” Acknowledge those feelings, those memories, those assumed expectations. Label them. Talk about them with friends and/or write them down in a parent journal.
Next, follow the Three P’s: Prepare, Propose, Plan.
My blogs are getting too long…so let’s save the details for next time. Ahh, what a lovely tendency of mine – always thinking in the big picture, with lots of pondering about what things “really” mean. The details are important, though..I know that, trust me. I learned as a teacher that I couldn’t really “wing it” if I were going to teach a fabulous class. I think through what I want for my students, specifically…what I want them to learn, what I want them to show me, how I want them to ENGAGE in important material. I plan for the details ahead of time before each Tuesday class at CU too. And now – it’s off to those plans. Great class last week, btw!
Anyone figure out yet how many acronyms it takes to educate a child? How many you know the meanings of, and don’t know the meanings of? How many you’d prefer to throw out the window, so that teachers talk to and with you when providing you with reports about your child in school?
You know your child better than any teacher ever will – or at least in a different way! You held her as a baby, laughed with her as a toddler, and swung with her on the playground. You hear what she says in the car, and notice how she changes when she interacts with different peers. But is the particular way in which you know your child appreciated – or even acknowledged – in parent-teacher meetings?
Numerous studies (e.g. Compton, 2009; Lightfoot, 2003; Mehan, 1993; Ware, 1994) have suggested that parent-teacher conferences gloss over what is “really” in the hearts and minds of teachers and parents alike. In Lightfoot’s study of parent-teacher conferences across the nation, for example, she noticed that parents come to the table with “ghosts in the classroom” – experiences of their own childhood when they were the student sitting in the now-tiny chair surrounded by colorful posters on the wall. These emotional experiences are hidden from view, and are not something that teachers (nor parents) explicitly bring to the conversation. Mehan’s study, on the other hand, analyzed the words that adults do indeed use when talking to each other about a student. Basically, he found that:
- Parents: Talk about their child in historical terms (e.g. “she used to sit on my lap when I read to her” or “she rushed through her math homework in second grade too”)
- Teachers: Talk about a student in sociological terms, such as where the student sits in the classroom, and with whom she does or does not work (e.g. “when reading alone at her desk she…”)
- Psychologists: Talk about a student using statistical markers that reference other students no one has ever met (e.g. “her verbal reasoning IQ is 112” and “she scored in reading at 4.1”).
That there are three distinct ways of framing a child’s learning in (and out) of school is not surprising given the different experiences each adult has with the child. What’s frightening is that educational psychologists are rarely if ever questioned by parents and teachers during school meetings. In his landmark study of IEP meetings, Mehan showed that parents and teachers asked each other to clarify what they meant by something (e.g. what an acronym means or what a teacher means by a child being an “independent thinker”), but neither parents nor teachers asked the psychologists to clarify any of their terms. It’s as if the psychologists were speaking a privileged language – one that should not be tampered with since it supposedly speaks “the truth.”
Acronyms are not what we have to “watch out for” when collaborating with teachers about our children. Instead, it’s the technical terms and scales (e.g. “test age was 7.0 to 7.5”) that de-humanize children, placing them into a social laboratory for the sake of objective comparison and study. Reading levels are particularly troubling. While knowing your child’s “reading level” can offer a guide for selecting some books out of the school’s library, it offers little in terms of information about your child’s imagination, ability to empathize with others, problem-solve or make connections: key cognitive skills of comprehension!
Furthermore, the ways in which a student’s “reading level” is determined differ according to the assessment used. Fry’s Readability Formula, for example, references syllables, words and sentences, but does not take into account topic selection or genre, let alone a reader’s interests and background knowledge. Schools might show parents charts indicating where a child’s test score falls in comparison to thousands of other same-age students on supposedly “normed” tests. As the term implies, however, norm-referenced assessments are graded along a normal curve and thus it is statistically impossible for everyone at a certain age to read “at grade level.” I can go on and on about the myths and misunderstandings of reading development at a later date….
At this point, let me just beg and plea… acronyms save educators time when talking to one another and writing progress reports about students. Parents can ask for clarification, and teachers can work toward eliminating jargon in their communication with parents. But technical terms that have little to do with the day-to-day life of a child within his own classroom, own school, own family at home must be seen for what they are: a way to position a child according to someone else’s definition of “normal.”
How many acronyms does it take to educate a child? S.A.T.’s…I.E.P.’s… A.C.Ts? P.T.O.’s? I.L.P.s? Each industry has its own “industry talk,” and it’s important to “talk the talk” when conversing with someone in that field. The over-reliance on acronyms in education, though, can be dizzying for parents – and teachers. It often seems as if educators and policy makers concerned with education started texting long before teenagers started hiding cell phones under their desks, typing away!
I teach a course at the University of Colorado, for example, on D.I. In that course, the students learn about instructional strategies for E.L.L.s using a research-proven model called the S.I.O.P.. They also learn the ins & outs of SPED programs, including the recent adoption of R.T.I. in secondary schools, and practice effective strategies for teaching students with L.D., R.D., ADHD, and a myriad of other high-incidence and low-incidence disabilities. Huh?
Educational jargon includes more than just multi-lettered terminology, too. One of my favorite stories about this topic is told in William Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well. (As a side note, he was my writing instructor in New York…a few years after he had left his post at Yale). A wealthy school district in Connecticut had hired him to ‘dejargonize’ the materials schools sent out to parents. The superintendent sent Zinsser samples of letters and memos, and Zinsser started the sorting process of good and bad examples. Overly wordy, dehumanized language…the bad pile had it all. “Enhanced learning environments,” for example. What the heck are those? And “modified departmentalized schedule.” Why not just say a modified schedule? Zinsser then asked the teachers, curriculum coordinators, and principals to re-write some of the samples. They scribbled, tore up paper, sat in silence, tried again. As Zinsser puts it, they were beginning to look and sound a lot like writers.
I applaud those teachers, principals, and curriculum coordinators who had the guts to think through the words they use when communicating with families. The language we use to talk about our children is important; it frames how we want others to see and thus interact with our sons and daughters. How would you prefer to be talked about – as a daydreamer or as someone who is creative, innovative and imaginative? As hyperactive or as energetic? As aggressive or as an assertive person who won’t let others take advantage of you? The first options shed people in a negative light while the second options have a positive tone to them.
Educational jargon is no different. It has the power to frame or reframe how we think about and interact with children in school. Using acronyms that parents do not use in their daily lexicon can also create a distance between a teacher and a parent. It’s as if the parents are not “in the know” when, in actuality, they know their child better than any teacher ever will – or at least they know their child in a different way than a teacher ever will know him or her (or them!).
The teachers, principals, and curriculum coordinators at Zinsser’s finally got it. They wrote in the first person. They used active verbs. They replaced long words and vague nouns with a description of what they were really trying to say. For one group, “Evaluative procedures for the objectives were also established based on acceptable criteria” became “At the end of the year, we will evaluate our progress.” Another group wrote, “We will see how well we have succeeded.” The writing – and thus the talk – was clearer, more personable, more real.
How well is your child’s school succeeding at de-jargonizing its communication to you? What are terms you can’t stand since they are so vague and don’t really tell you anything about your child, his school, the curriculum? Which words paint your child and his or her school in a positive light? Which ones are negative? Let’s pay attention…together, we can work toward humanizing the educational system in which our children (and we!) are a part.
Just after half-time in Sunday’s Super Bowl I started telling everyone in the room that there hadn’t been 1 turnover in the game. Both teams were playing mistake-free football. With such a close contest the difference between failure and success, winning and losing often comes down to who makes the first mistake…or…who first causes the opponent to make a mistake.
“What is the 1 LITTLE MISTAKE that would keep you from ‘winning it all’?”
“What it the 1 LITTLE MISTAKE could you make that would prevent you or your child from reaching your dream of Being a Black Belt?”
\What is the 1 BIG MISTAKE that could cause everything you’ve been working so hard toward to be intercepted and run back into the opposite direction?”
Need help coming up with something?
Here’s 1 LITTLE MISTAKE IN THINKING I’ve heard recently from a family who toured our Academy.
1 LITTLE MISTAKE IN THINKING= “Do you really think a child is able to make a commitment to train to Black Belt?“
I couldn’t have answered this question any better than pointing to two entire rows of Junior Brown and Black Belts in class at the time! I don’t have to think about it…those kids are living it. And we both know, it’s really the parent’s ability to help the child keep the commitment that is the critical success factor.
This 1 LITTLE MISTAKE IN THINKING is that somehow you must first have the very skill you’ve come to SMAA to learn.
- Adults come to me worried that they are not in good enough shape to come to Kickboxing or Bootcamp to get in shape.
- Adults worry that they don’t know any martial arts when they are coming to the Adult Self-Defense classes to learn martial arts.
- Parents lament their children’s lack of Discipline, Perseverance and Commitment when those are the very Lifeskills we teach them and help them learn.
Perhaps a child cannot keep his commitments and be disciplined because everyone backs away from letting him learn the lessons.
As Peyton Manning can tell you, an entire year’s worth of the hardest effort can be all for naught because of 1 LITTLE MISTAKE.