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.


2 Responses to “Parent Conferences”

  1. How funny! I just wrote my own post on conferences!

    I have to say, reading your post after having my second experience of student-run conferences, I am struck at how much my feelings about parent conferences have changed over the years of teaching there. I could and probably would have echoed much of what you said four years ago. Having had student-run conferences and intake conferences (early on, parent talks/teacher listens), conferences are much easier to deal with. (I also think having a child gave me more perspective.)

    What is most surprising to me, however, is that this year was the first year I felt like I was brutally honest about the really big and little hidden things — in front of the child and the parents. In fact, I think it was *because* the child was there in front of the parent and teacher, right there telling us the truth about themselves (good and bad). I felt elated (and exhausted) and relieved after conferences. I felt that together we all had accomplished the same important things you mentioned but perhaps from a different angle:
    1) the children were heard and seen by their parents and teacher/advisor and
    2) the parents got to see the relationship between their child and me (the teacher) and I (the teacher) got to see the relationship between the child and their parents.

    Honestly, this was a transformative experience. I knew from the first year what kids are capable of, so it only took me having the courage to have and facilitate an authentic conversation. It was so worth the effort. Every conference felt a success this time around, even though of course each child is different. I think we all took risks and came away with some good growth and connection. I really felt like the parents and I were partnering with the child. It affirmed my belief that the spring student-run conference from the youngest grades (even K) is both possible and desirable as it seems the most productive and effective.

    I’m not sure what your experience with student-run conferences is, and I feel the frustration you described, but I’d be interested to know what are your thoughts on that.

    • I’ve never been a part of a student-run conference, so I have zero experience with that.

      I can see the benefit of having a student be part of the conference for part of the time, but I’m not sure it would be most useful for the entire conference for every student. I can think of some students of mine who have a hard time being serious and thoughtful about themselves in conversations I’ve had with them. I don’t know what those conferences would look like as a student-run event.

      I also know that there are things that need to be said that don’t actually need to be said in front of a student. In this case, I’m thinking of my own child. There are things he has struggled with (not academic stuff, but social and emotional stuff) and has made great progress with, but I don’t necessarily want him to be super self-conscious about some of what he does. There are things he and we, his parents, have discussed together about his behavior; there are other things that I think are just quirky things about him, and given how sensitive he can be about the opinions of others, I think discussing those things with him present would simply stress him out and make him aware of how much he’s being watched by adults during his day.

      One of the things I like about kids (students or my own child) is how oblivious they can be to the fact that we’re paying attention. I love people-watching in general, and I can do that with students because they don’t know that I’m listening or watching. I don’t want students to become self-conscious about that; at the same time, I can use that information to know my students better. Is there a point at which having those conversations about them with them present would change their everyday behavior? (Again, I’ve never participated in a conference with a student present, and I’m just wondering aloud as I think.)

      The book I read about student-run conferences included some time with the student running the conference and some time with the parents and teacher alone. At the moment, if I were to use some aspect of student-run conferences, I think I’d like to have both. I can see using it with my fifth graders, who are mostly ready to have those conversations, but not yet with my fourth, some of whom aren’t thinking seriously about themselves as learners. It’s something to consider. Thanks!

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