Many parents try to take an active role in their child’s elementary education. At the young age, there are three types of parents who attend conferences. There is the I-want-to-hear-how-wonderful-my-kid-is parent. These are the perfect parents who want the teacher to pat them on the back and say, “You have a great kid. I wish I could be such a great parent, too.” Then, there is the I-guess-I-should-go-to-conferences parent. He or she is not sure what to do, but doesn’t want to be looked down by others for not attending. Lastly, there is the I-was-called-by-the-teacher-to-attend parent. This parent feels like he or she has been called to a tax audit. They have that feeling that there is a problem with junior.
Once a child reaches high school, only about 10% of the parents attend parent teacher conferences. Some parents feel that it is time for the child to be adult like and take ownership of their education. Some young adults are responsible and do not need mom or dad talking to every teacher. Some parents have given up because they always hear the same thing. Some kids do not remind their parents when conferences are. Some parents only visit a few teachers. Having taught and coached summer swimming in the area for so many years, many parents know me and do not feel the need to come in to get to know me. They know my expectations. They know my school and private email addresses. They know my cell phone and home phone number. Still, parents do attend conferences. These parents can be classified into two categories: the ones who want to hear how wonderful their child is and the ones who were called by the teacher to discuss a problem.
The first year of teaching brings out many parents to learn about the new guy, especially if one is at a small high school. I started my career at a high school with 350 students. Many of the students’ parents attended the school. Everyone knew everyone in the town, which was a foreign concept for me. My hometown had a population of 60,000, and I graduated from The Ohio State University, with an enrollment of about 60,000 back then.
One of my first conferences taught me that the apple does not fall far from the tree. I was planning on letting the mom know that her daughter had been tardy to class enough times to get two detentions. Well, mom was late. As a twenty-three-year old neophyte teacher, I was not going to admonish mom. Instead, I gave her the facts and the consequences of being tardy. We agreed that sometimes being late is not a big deal. Other times, like paying taxes, going to work, or menstruating, being late can be a big deal.
Another conference during that first year showed me how we act when we are nervous. Julie was a quiet student, barely speaking a word in class. She barely did her work, too, so her mom and I were concerned about her grade and lack of effort. Julie’s nervousness came out when she sat on a desk instead of a chair. She tried to dominate the conversation and tell mom what life was about. Mom and I worked together from the beginning. Without saying a word, we showed Julie we were the in charge. I had her sit in a chair and listen as we went over the poor performance so far. Then, we asked her what ideas she had for success in the future. The three of us, a triangle of trust and responsibility, came up with a plan for Julie’s success. We were all responsible for 33% of her education. Julie came to the conference hoping to create a rift between her mom and me. Instead, she met a united front of two people who wanted her to be successful. Once Julie realized we were working in her best interests, she turned her attitude and work ethic around. She started to succeed.
Unfortunately, not all conferences went so smoothly. During my second year of teaching, Ryan’s dad wanted a conference with the math teacher, the principal, and me. Apparently, Ryan was failing English and math. Ryan was a very likable kid and did class work all of the time. He just didn’t do homework or prepare for tests.
During the conference with Ryan’s dad, I was accused of not caring, not teaching, and not doing anything. It was my fault Ryan was failing. Is it the dentist’s fault when we get a cavity because we did not brush or floss? Yet, it was my fault because his son did not do homework or study for tests. I was told I only worked six hours a day. Then, I was insulted and yelled at. I tried to remain calm and professional. However, I lost control. I slammed my briefcase on the table, popped it open, and showed him the 90 essays I had to grade. I told him what a great kid Ryan was, but he needed to get work done outside of class. I started to get into a stink fight with a skunk. Then, the chief of police arrived. I guess a secretary called him in. Being a small town, and my being young, new, and not a resident, I did not know the little details. The chief ended the conference and escorted Ryan’s dad home.
A week later, Ryan had a very believable excuse for not having his homework. He said his mom took a shot at his dad. I asked, “What?”
Ryan responded, “It’s okay Mr. W. It was only a .22 and she missed.” I did not give him a zero for the assignment. He taught me to focus on student learning in class because I cannot control their lives outside of the school day. I would make sure not being able to do homework did not cause a student to fail. Thus, a bad conference taught me how to be a better teacher. It is part of being a freshman.
Today, our parents have access to the grade book on-line. They can see grades as quickly as a teacher can enter them. Parents can email teachers instead of calling them, which has been better for me because I have a computer at my desk, but the phone is down the hall. I can remember a few years ago when I told my classes that parents were going to have this access to grades and teachers, the kids hated the idea. If teenagers hate the idea, then it probably is good!
What else have I learned? Parents may be afraid of coming to school. They bring all of their memories that they had with teachers with them. They are cautious and worried that the teacher will judge them as a bad parent. Some teachers may do this, but remember, the reason that teachers do their job is because of the kids. If mom is concerned about Junior, then she is a good parent. The only “great knowledge” the teacher has is knowing the true purpose of the conference: to find out what everyone needs to do for the child to succeed. Once we set aside egos, we can concentrate on the real crisis – the child’s struggles.
Therefore, my advice to teachers and parents:
- Do not blame the other or accept blame.
- Listen to the other and hear their frustrations, without being defensive. Let him or her vent the frustrations he or she feels.
- Remind each other that you are part of the triangle of learning, with the student being the third side. We all have 33.3% of the responsibility.
Can you think of any other advice for teachers and parents?
Even though I was young and childless, many parents asked me for advice. Unfortunately, the classes I took to be a teacher did not prepare me for being an expert on raising teenagers, which can be akin to nailing grape jelly to the old oak tree in the back yard. So, I decided to ask the parents what they have done in the past that worked and didn’t work. We would brainstorm ideas and develop a working relationship to ensure success. I also learned a lot from the parents of the successful students. After all, experience is a great teacher. I then passed on the ideas to the parents of the struggling kids, telling them other parents have found success this way.
Some of the ideas I learned from parents included:
- Establish routine. Make sure homework is done right after school, or set aside an hour to do homework together. If there is no homework, then it is reading time. Discuss the completed homework at dinner with the whole family.
- Learn how your child learns best. Most teachers are visual learners. We like worksheets, chalkboards, multi-media projectors, etc. We learn best when we see it. However, some people are auditory learners. They learn best by listening. Audio books or reading notes aloud would help these learners. And, most of us learn by doing. Experience is the best teacher. We learn to ride a bike by doing it; we learn to write by doing it; and we learn to swim by doing it.
- Check Junior’s daily planner; does it look up to date? Or, check assignment posted the teacher’s web site.
- Contact the teacher for a weekly progress report. Email works best today. And, many school districts have grade books on-line. Check the grades frequently and if you think your child is not telling the truth, you are probably right.
- Set up consequences, both rewards and punishments. You know what will motivate your child best. One parent gave money for good grades and fines for bad grades. Another parent used her daughter’s social life as consequences. My dad rewarded me with dinner and punished me by making watch TV with the family.
What ideas have you learned that I may share?
Parent – teacher conferences are a great way to learn from each other. I have learned how to be a better teacher and better parent. I have also learned about hidden talents the students have. I learned about Lura’s love to play the piano; I learned about Luke’s love to ride horses and rope calves; I learned about Lyndsay’s love of the theatre; and Billy’s dream to attend The Air Force Academy and become a pilot.
Conferences also reminded how hard some kids have had it. I learned about Kelly who lost her mom to cancer three years ago; I learned about David fighting his own battle with cancer; I learned about Zak whose parents were going through a divorce; Chris, who at age fourteen, was a recovering alcoholic, and Carlos, who just found out the man he thought was his father wasn’t because his mom had an affair.
As we start another school year, I look forward to meeting another 150 students and a few of their parents. I look forward to learning about their dreams and I hope to help them through any adversity life throws at them.