I just finished another round of parent teacher conferences. For two days and approximately 13 hours, I met with the parents of nearly one hundred students. They came in one after another every seven minutes. After the fortieth or fiftieth conference, I had fallen into a routine. I was working with a manageable and effective script:
Rather than tell you a bunch of information you may not read or want to hear, I would love if you would tell me a little about your child in these three fields:
- Have you heard anything from him/her that would be cause for celebration? How are they feeling overall about our class and his/her progress?
- Are there any concerns or questions you have about his/her attainment or skills?
- Is there anything about the curriculum which you might need more clarity?
While our model was far from ideal, it worked. Most parents found an area on which they wanted to focus, and I tailored my comments based on what they wanted to hear. Some parents were excited by the work we are doing at The Table. Some were proud of their kids for publicly sharing their voices on their blogs. Some parents were concerned that we weren’t reading enough classics. Some were concerned that we weren’t reading enough. Full stop. Some where concerned with our approach to teaching English. Overall, I felt very positive about our conversations. I felt that most parents were happy with our progress as a class, most parents were happy with their child’s progress and grades. Most parents were satisfied.
Later that night, on Twitter, I bemoaned the stress of grades and skills and attainment when it comes to schooling and wished that I had had different conversations. I was having the wrong conversations. What made it worse was that I realized that I had framed the conversations myself, because that is what I felt parents wanted.
After the conferences, we sat as a department for a quick debrief, and I excitedly shared my script, mentioned the positive feedback, while we absorbed the negative feedback. I felt quite pleased with myself. I had had great conferences, even though they may not have been the ones I wanted.
Then Ian, our Fearless Leader, mentioned a conversation he had with a mother who had not been concerned about grades at all, or skills or classics, but wanted to ask Ian about his values. She was a former UWC graduate, and for her the most important thing was whether or not her child’s teacher had values that matched the UWC ethos. She wanted to know what kind of person was sitting in front of her child and what types of qualities and understanding he valued.
I got to thinking–So many parents asked me what their child can do to improve. No matter how they were doing, no matter the grade, no matter the comments– nearly everyone asked me how their child could improve. Where does this need to achieve and compete and become perfect come from. Is improvement the same as growth, do either correlate with learning? Does improvement in a skill lead to understanding? Does improvement in skills lead to values? Do attainment and grades, skills and improvement always indicate learning in terms of values. What is the purpose of school? Skills or values? Both? How do we balance the two? When do we talk about how or when students are being concerned or committed, principled, resilient, self-aware? Communicators? Collaborators? Thinkers, Problem Solvers, Creative or Self-Mangers? Do their attainment grades in single subjects reflect their learning in terms of Service, Outdoor Ed, Activities, Personal and Social Education? What I am trying to say is that we all tend to focus on the Academic?
I framed my entire conversation around the things I value least in hopes that I would satisfy what parents wanted, but is that really what they wanted? I hope parents who are reading this will contribute in the comments below, so we can extend the conversation. I hope we can find better ways to talk about what is happening at school in regards to their kids. The conversations can be, should be much deeper, than a seven minute discourse on why he/she received a number or whether or not they can use a comma.
I am purposely being a tad flippant, of course I understand that each conference is based on what happens in that single subject. I also realize that teachers are ultimately responsible for conveying a set of understandings and developing a skill set. We are accountable for a set of standards and benchmarks and our assessments should reflect improvement in these skills. I also know that parents want to be informed and included on talks about choices we make about curriculum, but like Jeff Plaman said, can’t these conversations happen as a group, in public, on blogs like this one?
My qualm is the amount of focus, time and energy we spend solely on attainment and academic grades. Skills and grades are a reality. They are based on rubrics, but no matter how we try to justify how they come to be, they can often be arbitrary and subjective. A grade tends to a very ineffective method to share student learning.
So what is the answer? What are the conversations we could be having? How do you do parent conferences at your school? (Before you say Student Led conference, yes that is option, but I know of few schools who have perfected that model either. They still tend to be parents looking over the shoulders, looking for the teacher to talk about that pesky math grade. We will have SLC at the end of the year, but most schools still feel a need to have parent conferences in addition to SLC) As a parent, what are your thoughts? What would you like to see? How do you feel after a talk with teachers? What is important to you?
I hope this post generates some fruitful conversations and possible ideas for future conferences.