As we near the end of the first nine weeks, our system requires classroom teachers to have parent conferences for all students. Each year, that makes me reflect on past conferences, remembering the parent who called ahead of time to ask me what kind of flavored coffee I liked, or the parent who showed up in the middle of that marathon day with a picture their child had drawn for me, or the parent who brought me a bagel for our 7 AM meeting. I also remember some of the parents, who, at the time, I sometimes describe in my head, as just plain mean. They come in defensive, angry or hurt–and sometimes seem to attack me in their attempt to take care of their child. Sometimes the tone of voice simply puts me on edge–I hear criticism where there may be none (or there may be), but it is clear they are uncomfortable questioning the teacher and wanting change. These are the conferences we all struggle with–because it’s too easy for us all to walk away with disgruntled feelings that may affect future interactions.

Every teacher has their conference nightmares–or their fond memories of parent conferences. We remember the parent who brought us coffee or a treat just as much as we remember the parent who came in angry, defensive, accusatory or timid. Each has an opportunity to teach us something, if we can only step outside of ourselves to listen.

One of my most difficult ones happened with some GREAT parents several years ago, when I was a fairly new GRT. The parents smiled rarely, despite my sharing their child’s wonderful work and talking about what an amazing thinker and intuitive mathematician she was. There were no comments about the child sharing or enjoying at home what we do in class, other than questions about why we did this or that. Mom and Dad clearly wanted to support school and their daughter at home, and were asking for homework, asking for information about what we do each day, asking for information about how she would improve and continue to grow in arithmetic skills throughout that year.

I heard criticism. I heard dislike. I heard anger (the dad particularly had a tone I heard as upset, and I named it angry). These may not have been the parents’ feelings, but I heard and read those emotions in the parents’ body language, tone of voice, and lack of smiles and my perceptions are what I remember.

We had to end quickly because of a prior commitment (I had another meeting), so we didn’t come to a consensus or conclusion. It certainly ended unsatisfactorily for me, and I knew it did for the parents as well.

Both of these parents were active in the building, as both worked at home, and that year they volunteered in three different grade levels. They had a reputation for being extremely demanding, and frankly, for not being nice in conferences as well. I had known these parents were coming in with questions. I knew they were probably coming in with a different view of what is going on in my class than I have. I felt they were coming in looking for a more traditional approach to teaching and learning than I have. I prepared differently for this conference and slept poorly the night before for worrying about it.

As I pondered those interactions that year, and wondered what I could have done differently, several things came to mind–and I think of this conference (and others) each time conferences come round.  Here are my thoughts and suggestions. And if they help me–or another teacher–then my time writing this is well spent.

First, I almost always begin conferences by asking parents if they want to begin with their questions or if they want me to share their child’s work first. This allows the parents to feel some control and often gives me a feel for how intense or critical the questions might be. In this case, the parents asked me to go first. That left their questions to the end, and we didn’t have time to address them all, much less come to any common understandings or consensus on plans for the future.

Knowing they requested the conference, I should have asked them to go first.

Secondly, as a gifted resource teacher, my class is less centered on isolated arithmetic skills than many classrooms, and more focused on arithmetic skills within the context of problem solving, and so the work on skills is not as transparent to parents as it is in many classrooms. I felt like these parents walked away feeling like I don’t work on arithmetic, and that was a major question for them.

I should have set up a situation that explained how I do that more clearly.

Thirdly, they asked about homework, and my answer was incredibly lame, as I was trying to save time. I actually had a pretty complicated system going on, and this child completed hers in school most of the time.

I needed to address that with them-and my other parents. I also needed to make sure she took it home so they could see it.

This year, I am actually collaborating with a classroom teacher to do problem solving homework in a way that really is going to stretch my kids–and I haven’t taken the time to share that yet with my parents just because I have been so busy. That is no excuse to not communicate clearly with parents, and I need to take care of that!

Lastly, they asked for information as to what was happening in my class so they could follow up at home. That is a reasonable request and I know they left feeling like I wasn’t going to do that, because we just didn’t have time to make a plan.

I asked them to reschedule another time for us to talk, and we addressed the issues we didn’t have time to in the first conference. It was a MUCH more pleasant situation as it was not rushed.

Just because we experience things once doesn’t mean we never make those mistakes again.  As a teacher, I hope parents understand that we are human–and sometimes aren’t as good as we want to be.

A new teacher talked to me the other day (in WalMart, of all places!) about a conference that went similarly to the one I describe here. I counseled her to call the parents and ask if they wanted more time–something I often do, if the conference is rushed. I also counseled her to let it go and just make sure she does her part to encourage good communication for the rest of the time she has these students, (and others in the future).

Conferences are about communication–and if either side lets that not occur, then everyone may lose.

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