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Tom | November 1, 2011

Parent Conference Reflections


Images (1)By Tom

I just finished a week of parent-teacher conferences. And although it can be physically exhausting, it’s always one of my favorite times of the year. They always come at a time when I’m just starting to think about my class as a group of different individuals, and when I’m curious about how they got to be the way they are. As always, this year’s conferences were enlightening. It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually a pretty good listener, which is what I spend most of the conference doing. I’ll ask a few questions and go through a few pieces of student work, but mostly I listen to what parents tell me about their children. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “You can hear a lot by just listening.”


-A lot of families are really struggling right now. You already knew that, and so did I, but after talking with some of them, it’s become far more real. People are unemployed, underemployed and badly-employed. I talked with a guy from Microsoft who’s been out of work for months; a former dentist from the Ukraine, who’s working at an entry-level, low-skill job; and several parents who work nights at the only jobs they can find. Most of us in education look at the current budget crises in Olympia and quickly decide that the answer is more taxes. But most of us in education don’t live nearly as close to the edge as some of the families we work with. Higher taxes might improve their children’s education, but they might also push them over that edge.

-I work with a lot of recent immigrants. Over half of my students were either born overseas or have parents that were. Many of these families come from places where child-rearing is a multi-generational endeavor. Adjusting to the American way of raising kids doesn’t always work out very well.

-Somewhat related to that, it was clear that at least one-third of my students are essentially ruling their households. Their parents seem to have lost control. For some of these families, it's partly because their children speak better English than anyone else in the house. For others, it's simply weak parenting. Either way, these are eight-year-olds, for crying out loud, and I can only imagine what the future holds. I actually had one man, with no sense of irony, ask me to tell his daughter to read on the weekends. I was about to ask him the same thing. I’m clinging to the belief that this is just a small-sample aberration; that there isn’t really a parenting crisis in this country. Please let me cling to that belief.

-My personal relationship with parent conferences has evolved. When I first started teaching, I was about ten years younger than any of the parents. I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t know what I was talking about. And they knew it. Then for awhile I was about the same age as the parents. I also began to know what I was talking about. Conferences became a lot more enjoyable. Now I’m about 20 years older than most of the parents. I’m roughly their parents’ age. Consequently, they treat me like a person from the previous generation. I’m still getting used to that.

-More than anything else, math confuses parents. Especially the fact that we seem to lack a consistent approach to teaching it. When third-grade math problems confuse grown-ups, something’s amiss. I’m at the point where I would agree to any math curriculum, even the worst math curriculum, as long as we stick with that curriculum for eat least thirty years. Honestly.

-One of my students, the oldest of five kids, hasn’t seen her dad since he went to Iraq nine months ago. He’s coming home in three weeks; the day before Veteran’s Day.

 Just thinking about that makes me smile and cry at the same time.



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I enjoy conferences as well simply because it humanizes everyone in the process of education. It makes it clear that we are all in this together so when I call up a parent later, my phone call is not the first time they have thought of their child's education, or when a parent emails me, they know that I really do mean "whatever I can do to help, please let me know."

When I tell my colleagues that conference week is my favorite week of the school year, you might think I had just kicked their dogs. I love the time with parents (and often the kids) when we get to talk about what the kids are learning and hopefully loving.

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