Thursday, November 18, 2010

Parent Conferences

My first year of teaching, I would call homes every night, begging parents to discipline their children. I would call with a laundry list of offenses that their child had committed, and complain that their student was disrespectful, lazy, rude, distractive, etc. Nothing every changed. The parents would sigh, and agree, and say that they didn’t know what to do either. “They are the same way at home, I don’t know what to do,” the parent would sigh, sounding resigned to the inevitability of their child’s failure.

Next door, Wendy, my current partner, was having much more success. Her children had a history of bad behavior, and had IEPs that required them to be in a severely restrictive setting. And yet, parents were rushing to help her in any way that they could. When she suggested that the child be punished, they gave her high fives her in agreement.

What was different?

Listening to Wendy make calls home taught me one of the biggest lessons that I had learned, and I will be forever grateful to her for what she showed me about interacting with parents.

“Hi, this is Mrs. Santana, I’m Jose’s teacher…I was just calling to express some of my concerns about Jose. Jose is very bright, very energetic, but Jose is not showing us the best parts of him. I am very concerned, because I want nothing more than for him to have success, and he is not allowing himself to achieve it. His behavior is preventing him from achieving.” She would go on and on, making the parent truly believe that you she was calling to strategize the best ways for their son to succeed, and one day be president. My calls were less optimistic.

“Hi, this is Ms. Klein, I’m Jose’s teacher. I wanted to let you know some problems that I am having with Jose. Jose’s behavior is a huge problem in class, he is very distractive, I have to speak with him many times, he gets upset if I ask him to please be quiet, and he often prevents me from teaching my lessons, and prevents the other kids from learning.”

Looking back, it seems so obvious. When I called, I talked about myself. I let the parent know how worried I was about how the child was impacting ME. When Wendy called, she was talking about how the child impacted themselves! The parent has no reason to worry about me – and every reason in the world to worry about themselves!

I have practiced following Wendy’s example every time I have ever called home in the last 2 years, and have noticed excellent results. It is most evident on Parent-Teacher Conference nights.

Last night, parents waited in a long line outside of our room. They came in, they sat, disappointed in their children’s grades, claiming, as usual, that their student had never ever received such low marks. As usual, there were excuses made, and sighs of defeat. But when the parents left, they were always on our side – agreeing that we were a team, working to support the success of the child.

There are always the very good, and very bad moments at Parent Conferences. There are the sounds of a parents screaming at their child, slapping them, cursing at them. There are tears running down children’s faces. Always the parents seem to feel the need to demonstrate to the teachers that they are strong disciplinarians. They will berate their child without mercy for the benefit of our ears, raging about how ‘things are gonna change’. There is nothing I hate more than listening to a parent discipline their child. I have no time for it – always wanting to walk away.

My first year, hearing the child get scolded represented a victory for me – I really believed that things were going to change. Now, I know the futility of it, and it annoys me. A parent waltzes in and acts surprised to hear that their child is failing, is disruptive, is crazy. They then respond with outrage, as though they can’t even believe that this is THEIR child.

I am outraged. I am outraged that the parent can say that they have no idea about their child, and expect me to believe it. I am outraged that they can say it and actually mean it sometimes. I am outraged that when they hear that they have a child on the 3rd or 4th grade reading level, they are shocked and disappointed.

“They act as if they are reading with the kids at home every night,” Wendy says, laughing after a parent seemed to disagree with the assigned reading level. No. They aren’t reading with their kids. If you read with your kids, your kids can read. If you spend time with them, it’s no surprise that they are failing. If you know your son or daughter, than you know that they can be a big pain in the butt sometimes.

I know that these parents have a difficult job, raising a family in poverty, often without the support of a spouse. But if you are going to discipline your child and teach them right from wrong – teach them every day – not just on parent teacher conference night.

The parents who are effective just nod and frown, and when they go home they deal with the problems. These are the kids who come back reformed, reminded of the values that they already knew. The ones whose parents rage in public are the ones who roll their eyes even as their mother curses at them.

There are the good moments too, of course. The parents whose eyes fill with pride when we tell them about how wonderful their kid is. These parents know that their kids are great – and are pleased to have someone else recognize it.

Saddest always, are the parents who don’t know that their kids are great. Who look at us with disbelief, as though we must be talking about a different child.

“He’s really great, we like having him in our class, he’s a great addition.” We rave.
“Yea, well there’s an awful lot I’d change about him. I just want to kill him sometimes,” sighs a frustrated, exhausted mother.

The best experience that I had last night was when a step father came into the room. He was the last parent of the night, and he was the stepfather of a boy who I have known for 3 years. I have always had a soft spot for this kid – he’s quiet and contained, with a bad temper. He’s popular and athletic, and he glows when he receives praise, but shuts down entirely if he is ever reprimanded or corrected.

I explained to the man that his stepson had had a rocky start, but had turned things around entirely, and was really impressing us. I showed him the improved work, and described moments when he had really made us proud.

“We’re really proud of how he’s turned things around,” we reported.
“I’M really proud. I can’t believe what I’m hearing! I’m just so proud of him right now – I’m gonna make sure he knows how proud I am. The last year, every time that we come in here we are embarrassed, and feel like we don’t know what to do. It’s so good to hear good things. This isn’t what I was expecting at all!” the stepdad said. He looked like he was remembering the boy who he had forgotten.

After he left the room, he sat down on a chair in front of the bulletin board, and read from start to finish a paper that his stepson had written about playing football, leaning in close to capture every word.

It’s always revealing and eye opening to meet the parents. It always explains a lot. Often it’s as we predicted. The strict parents who ask the good questions are the ones with the kids who are already doing well. The ones whose parents don’t show up are the ones who we most needed to see. The angriest parents have the angriest kids. But whatever the experience turns out to be, it’s important for us to see where these kids come from, and understand what they go home to every night.


  1. I LOVE this blog. As a student, I can connect with alot of these events. The details just brings me back to all the parent teachers confe4rence. MORE! MORE! MORE!

  2. As a teacher for 6 years in Mott Haven Village School (it has since closed), I love this! So much of what you write was my experience, too. Makes me feel less alone. Thanks!

  3. Wow! I think that many can relate to the situations mentioned. It's hard to feel so passionate about making a change and doing what ever it takes, yet when it comes to teaching, we need them (students-fam) to want it as much as we do. I know in many cases they do...I would hate to believe that anyone wants their child to fail. It's all about creating the unity as you mentioned. Keep Rocking it OUT!!!!

  4. Thank you. I've started teaching this summer, and I am finding there is constantly so much I need to improve on. But I suppose that is part of the definition of what makes a teacher. This blog is wonderful; thank you for sharing your own experiences, so that others can continue to learn what you have. I suppose, that too, is the essence of what compiles a teacher.