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!