Parent Conferences

March 26, 2011

There have been many articles and books written about parent conferences.  Some are for parents, some are for teachers, but no matter the target audience, the message is clear:  Conferences are fraught with anxiety.  I’ve been on both sides of the conference table, and it’s fascinating to me how difficult they often are no matter what.

As a teacher, conferences are a time when I have 20 minutes (okay, mine usually last 30) to discuss with the parents everything about their child.  Sometimes we are problem-solving together, sometimes I’m passing along information, sometimes I’m quiet and just listening.  I am trying to do many things at the same time:  to let parents know how their child is doing academically, to indicate to the parents that I do know and understand some things about their child, to explain what it is that happens at school all day, every day.  Their child is spending a majority of his or her waking hours at school, and it’s a black box — the parents don’t know what happens at school, and this conference time twice a year is the most personal snapshot they get of their child’s life in my classroom.  One would think they’d want to hear it all.

As a parent, conferences are when I get to find out what happens during my child’s day.  Some children report every nuance of life at school (I was one of those children myself), but in my case my child’s reports are thin on details.  I get occasional anecdotes brought up in other conversations, never through direct questioning.  And if I show up at school myself, the dynamic of my child in his classroom changes, so that I’m not really seeing what my child is usually like at school.  So at my conferences, I could happily sit and listen to a string of anecdotes and evidence that all add up to my child’s experience of school.  But maybe I’m not a typical parent.  And I’m also sure that my being a teacher shapes how I am a parent in conferences.

Some parents want stories and evidence, a snapshot of school.  What a lot of parents want is to know that: 1) I know their child, and 2) I have a detailed plan for how best to teach their child.  Sometimes that’s easy.  Sometimes that’s incredibly hard.  There are children who are small mysteries, whose patterns of behavior and learning change rapidly.  We look for predictability and consistency to come up with a plan for how best to teach them;  some children are difficult cyphers.  Parents often know this about their own children, but they expect teachers to know more and to have answers.  It is deeply frustrating on both sides when we don’t.

Then there are the dynamics of classrooms.  No matter how well I might know one individual child, I have a classroom of individuals who react and respond to each other.  In a vacuum, I can address each child’s needs easily.  In a classroom, it’s much trickier.  What happens when one child’s difficulties affect others?  What happens when one child’s social insecurity butts up against another child’s desire to expand his or her social network?  I’m not meeting with all of these parents at the same time, and I can’t tell the parents of one child that another child is a problem for their child.  At those moments, I can listen and nod as parents describe interactions I know well, but I can’t tell those parents what conversations I have with the other child’s parents.

As a parent who has been in the teacher’s shoes, I do my best to let my child’s teacher know that I’m not seeking a clear solution to my child’s problems.  I know my child’s strengths and weaknesses;  we can talk together about how we might address them, but there’s no magic cure.  I don’t expect every teacher to like my child or to enjoy teaching him, but I do expect the teacher to be doing his or her best to teach him.  I expect from my child’s teachers what I expect of myself as a teacher.

Conferences are strangely intimate scenes.  Your child is the biggest delight and worry of your life.  You want his or her life to be a good one.  You want to spare him or her pain and suffering.  And the teacher is the person who spends more time every day with your child than you do.  There are expectations on both sides and a desire on both sides to do what’s best for the child.  And you sit across the table from each other and muddle through it.  There are no “perfect” parent conferences, but I learn a lot from most of them, whether I’m the parent or the teacher.  In this season of parent conferences, I hope we learn together and leave the conference feeling hopeful and heard.

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When I was nine and in fourth grade, I lied to my teacher.

For some students, this would not have been a memorable occurrence.  Students lie for a variety of reasons, and to some extent I think it’s part of development.  They want to see where the boundaries are.  Luckily, most students are poor liars, so we teachers can react with skepticism and perhaps some mild scolding, and we all move on.

I am actually a terrible liar and always have been, and because of this (and a moral sense that prevented me from wanting to) I didn’t lie often.  My fourth-grade lie looms large in my memory because it was a rather big one and because I got away with it.

We were assigned Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn.  Each of us had a spiral notebook, and for each chapter there were vocabulary words and questions to be answered.  I loved to read, and as many of my students who are avid readers do, I read ahead.  I finished the book pretty quickly, actually, and discovered something:  I didn’t like the book.  At the time, I felt that Caddie was abnormally cheerful and energetic and enthusiastic (unlike my cherished Laura Ingalls, who could be a grump sometimes).  Without thinking carefully about my actions and the consequences, I stopped doing the assigned work.

It’s hard to remember why I did this.  My vague recollection is that because I didn’t like the book, I shouldn’t have to do the work.  That’s a terrible argument and one I encounter occasionally in my students.  (My stock response to a student’s complaint that they don’t like something I expect them to do is, “I didn’t ask you if you liked it.  I asked you to do it.”)  This was not an early form of conscientious objecting, or of offering a different plan for how I could show the teacher I’d read and understood the book.  It was just a decision not to do the work because the book was dumb.

Of course, eventually we were expected to hand in the notebooks.  Our teacher said on a Friday afternoon, “Please leave your notebooks on my desk.”  And I didn’t, of course.  On Monday, the teacher took me aside and said, “I don’t have your notebook,” to which I replied with fake astonishment, “But I put it on your desk!”  I then offered to redo it (perhaps feeling guilty about not having done it in the first place), but she smiled and said no, and that perhaps it had fallen off her desk and into the garbage can.

And that was the end of it.  I never made up the work and I never told her that I lied.

I was aware that this was a rare occasion and that I would not make a habit of it.  To be honest, I didn’t enjoy reading the next book, either (a version of Robin Hood, which our teacher presented with no historical context and which struck me as dull), but I knew I couldn’t skip the work again.  (Instead, every written piece I wrote extolled the virtues of the Sheriff of Nottingham over Robin Hood.)  I also knew that the main reason I had gotten away with it with Caddie Woodlawn was because I was, up until that point, an excellent student.

While this lie has not affected my life as a whole, I have often mused about my own stupid and unethical act.  Oddly enough, what this has boiled down to most recently was a constant nagging wonder if the book was REALLY as bad as I had thought back then.  I had to find out.

This afternoon I read Caddie Woodlawn for the first time since fourth grade.  And to be honest, it wasn’t a bad book.  As a teacher, I can see having, say, third graders at our school read it.  The Indians talk in the stereotypical Indian way, which is irritating, but with some class discussion about that you can use that as a learning experience.  Caddie’s father makes friends with the Indians, as does Caddie.  She’s a kind and thoughtful girl.  Caddie is a tomboy for most of the book, an experiment of her father’s, and she recoils at the thought of being “ladylike.”  Close to the end, however, she decides that she needs to grow up and learn some things about being a woman.  The book has a forward in which the author indicates that Caddie is her grandmother;  I liked finding out how the real Caddie enjoyed her life.  I don’t remember if that forward was in the version I read or not, but I have no recollection of real-life information about Caddie at all.

I didn’t think Caddie was a particularly complex character.  Aside from her decision in the last two chapters of the book to accept becoming a woman, the book was a series of anecdotes about frontier life in Wisconsin.  As a fourth grader who had already bonded with Laura Ingalls and was moving into Madeleine L’Engle and Ray Bradbury, it would have seemed like a dull read.  I enjoyed twisty tales, where you didn’t know what was going to happen until it happened.  This book ambles along and not much really happens.  It’s pleasant enough, then it’s over and you move on to something you enjoy more actively.

No one enjoys doing work focused on something they don’t like.  In my teaching career, I’ve occasionally had to teach about subjects I didn’t care for.  It was much harder than throwing myself into a topic I loved.  But the “real world” requires such things sometimes.  I can see that part of my job as a teacher is to teach students that messy truth;  that in the course of human events, we sometimes have to do things we don’t want to.  Caddie didn’t want to learn tasks she’d need to know as a woman in that time period, but realized she had to learn them anyway and it might not even be as bad as she’d thought.  See, I learned something from Caddie Woodlawn after all, 32 years later.

Teachers talk a lot about executive function, the term used to describe the brain’s ability to monitor and regulate its processes when it comes to complex tasks.  Executive function allows us to sequence events, to break a large task down into smaller pieces, to budget our time, to keep track of things.  There are lots of bright students who have increasing difficulties at school as they get older because while they have lots of skills and smarts, they have increasing trouble keeping it all organized in ways that make sense.  They might procrastinate too long, not realizing the project is too big to do in one chunk.  They might remember some parts of an assignment but forget others.  They might lose the assignment.  They might do the assignment but leave it sitting on their desk at home.  So even though these students can handle the actual work, the details of doing the task — of their brain’s ability to carry it out successfully — prevent work from being done carefully or from being handed in on time.

So why am I mentioning this?  One thing that teachers look for is how tidy or messy students are.  We like our students to be organized, and we associate organization with a tidy way of doing things.  Messy binders lead to lost work;  organized binders look neat and students know where things are.  But it is possible to be messy and still be organized.  Consider my desk…

My desk at school always has piles on it.  These piles do not appear to have any particular organizational quality — no folders labeled with “To Hand Back” or “To Grade,” or with names of classes or students on them.  What’s on my desk is a combination of work I’ve looked at and work I haven’t, plus some of my own notes and plans, and on any given day a few stacks of blank question sheets that will be handed out in a class.  There’s no rhyme or reason except a general chronological order;  things from longer ago tend to be near the bottom.  And yet I generally find things just fine.

My messy habits are well-known both at school and at home.  My co-teacher laughs about the appearance of my desk, and the students sometimes comment, “Your desk is a mess.”  (In addition to many papers, I also have several desk calendars for students’ enjoyment, a fairly anatomically correct plastic brain, and some plush microbes.)  According to what we teachers look for, I should be a walking disaster in terms of executive function, unable to plan or carry through complex tasks.  But we plan all the time, and in fact my tidier co-teacher sometimes asks me for copies of things he has misplaced.

Because of my messy habits, I feel sheepish making the students clean their cubbies.  Granted, my desk is not gross — no food, no half-drunk milk cartons (both of which you can find in some student cubbies) — but it certainly could use a cleaning most of the time.  So I tell the students they need to unearth important things in their cubbies periodically (in addition to removing mouse-attracting stuff), and I let them know that I, too, reach a point at which I need to clean.

What does tidiness correlate with?  It is certainly true that some jobs require a level of attention to detail and precision that probably also require tidiness, both physically and in terms of thinking.  Some people say a cluttered space is a sign of a cluttered brain — that precision of thinking shows in being neat and organized.  But aren’t there lots of jobs and tasks that require “un-linear” thinking?  As a society, we are increasingly seeking creativity.  My own alma mater is close to finishing a building that will house professors from all disciplines to work together in creative and collaborative ways.  That’s not tidy — it’s not the suite of biology offices on the second floor of the science building and the art studios in the art building — but it does spark connections in new ways.

My students who have the most trouble keeping their cubbies tidy and their binders neat are also quite creative — one is a writer, one draws constantly.  Yes, it’s important for me to teach them a system for not losing their homework.  And yes, every now and then the cubby needs a total cleaning.  But is it THAT important that they be tidy people?

(And as a postscript, I would like to say that I didn’t just spin all of this to build my case for my own messy desk.  I know myself, I know what works for me, and I don’t feel the need to defend my messy ways.  I just wonder how important it is for us as teachers to require our messy students to be tidy ones.)