There they sit in the hallway, side by side, the first two chairs placed in the precious silence before parent-teacher conferences begin. Meanwhile, inside our rooms, we are eating a quick lunch or snack, checking our mail, checking in on children or parents,* arranging the conference spaces we have created, and doing a myriad other activities as we prepare for the onslaught.
There are always some physical preparations. I had my conference table at the ready with cushioned swivel chairs; parents generally didn’t notice that they were stained from overuse (and unnamed substances), focusing instead on meeting me and looking around the classroom. I placed tissues on the table within easy reach for tears more than colds, though certainly there were plenty of colds in January. (And cancellations – which I would arrange to make up at a later date or in the phones. If the no shows called, which was rare, I had to make those up too, which always ticked me off, as I had already moved past them on my list.) I had mints, which parents rarely took, even when they should have, and post-its and pens, as parents would often show up without anything to write with – in some cases, just like their children. I had New Age music playing quietly in the background – for me as much as them. It was as Zen a space as I could make it.
Specific to each student were printouts of grades from Genesis (our classroom management program), which at this point in the marking period were pretty extensive. Over the last five years, it wasn’t really required that I do these printouts, really, as all parents theoretically had access to them, but it was always good to have them at my fingertips. I always printed two copies: one that I could hand out and one on which I could jot comments for me. For both, I would highlight certain grades that stood out as being particularly strong or problematic, and those that appeared atypical in either direction. Parents too often would focus on one missed homework (worth almost nothing in the scheme of things), because it equaled a D or F on Genesis, though the grade might only be worth 4 points in total out of 200 points in the marking period thus far.
I placed student reading/writing portfolios on the table, too. Just looking at point values didn’t explain anything, but looking at the finished piece said it all, especially with my comments right there. In some cases, the work was only available on line, and I would have a computer set up to get to that piece quickly. In other cases, I hadn’t handed back the assignment yet, so parents got a preview; this especially was the case as we got closer to the end of the marking period and my frenzied completion of the grading for a major writing piece or reading assessment. I would put these grades into Genesis when I could, so parents and guardians would know pretty much what the end of marking period grade was going to look like, which was the first thing parents generally looked at.
It seems, from the above, that my focus on meeting with parents was on grades only, but that is only part of the story – or, at least, I tried to make it so. Whenever possible, I would shift the conversation from children’s ability – which might not be very strong – to their work ethic, which might be. What parents just didn’t seem to get too much of the time is who their children really were as students. They simply might not have it, whether that it was reading comprehension, writing fluency, grammatical strength, or a combination of the above, yet their desire to do well pushed them further than they would otherwise get. This still worked in their favor in the seventh grade, where sometimes a simple check in of an assignment – they did it, or they didn’t – gave students some much-needed points. And yet there were many parents who expected more, or just wanted more, from their children than was going to be possible. They just couldn’t keep their eyes off those grades.
There were some parents who would listen, though, and I would speak to their children’s enthusiasm, or their sweetness, or their humor, or their kindness for others – especially their kindness for others — and at the end, the parents would be as pleased as I was, even if they came in, at first, angry or disappointed. And there were some who got that right away, who came in shrugging their shoulders in terms of the academics but thrilled to get a picture of the sweet young man or woman their children had clearly become when they weren’t watching.
Of course, there were also those students who were not only struggling in ELA but who just didn’t care, and there was lots of shaking heads and sadness from those parents; many parents, in these situations, truly just felt helpless. We would talk about strategies, or after-school activities – I would hear about how many sports they were in, and how late they got home, and I didn’t have to say much for the parents to know what I would suggest.
My favorite conversations happened when parents would be clearly mortified at the illegible or barely attempted assignment they were viewing and would ask me to do something to wake their children up. They might ask me, for example, not to accept that late assignment, as it was a pattern they wanted to break. “I would never have submitted something that looked like this!” they might exclaim. “He/she deserves to fail. DO IT!”
There were always discussions with those parents whose children had ability – sometimes great ability – and didn’t use it. Here, I always focused on the fact that they probably just weren’t ready. I know many late bloomers when it comes to education, and sometimes the desire for learning didn’t happen until high school – and sometimes even later. Usually, they would end up all right. The parents often didn’t want to hear it, and I didn’t blame them.
And then there were those moments when the parent told me something I didn’t know or may have only suspected, a family situation that was more difficult than I had known. Where the parent was crying, and sometimes, so was I. And I knew those children would be under my watch for the rest of our time together, if they weren’t already.
And then, and then – there were the parents who didn’t show, and often, of course, these were the ones I needed to see. Sometimes they just couldn’t, due to familial or work demands, and sometimes they just didn’t. In some cases, I hadn’t heard back from these parents all year in response to e-mails and – when necessary – phone calls. I couldn’t let myself judge, and yet it was hard not to. And there were their children, my students, struggling without many consequences – which is why, in some cases, they were struggling.
Of course, there were all those parents of the A and A plus students, still making appointments for every teacher in every class. In middle school, this started to drop off, but it still happened. Parents would always say that they came because they wanted to hear the praise – and there was occasionally some embarrassment here, as if they felt they were wasting my time by being there. But I understood that rationale, and it was delightful to talk up these students, especially when they were not only bright but generous and kind to others. Once again, I would focus on that more than on the grade. And in the cases where those A and A plus students had been mean spirited in actions or deeds – and I would try to squeeze that in. Sometimes, the parent would listen.
There were the times when parents would bring their children – my students – with them. Occasionally, it was because the parent wouldn’t yet leave their children at home alone, and in some cases, it was about translating. I always felt somewhat uncomfortable here, even though it really made sense to have students hear, for themselves, what I wanted them to know.
Very occasionally, teachers are blindsided: a parent comes in with a concern or issue that you hadn’t expected. In all my years of teaching, this only happened twice, but both times left me grappling with why I had missed these problems so absolutely, my head spinning as I tried to figure out a way to stop it.
Although it seems that these conferences were lengthy – and should be lengthy – that is impossible, with 70-plus students most years. About five years ago, as I recall, they were changed in my district’s middle schools to 10 minutes each, though I believe that previously, they had been as short as five minutes apiece. Could that possibly be? Even 10 minutes, in many cases, was too short. I might have specific information I wanted to relay, or the parent would, or I might have taught an older son or daughter. If I ran late, the whole afternoon or evening toppled – and it was just too easy to do so. (If they ran late, I might not be able to see them at all, or they would hang around until the end, trying to get in so they wouldn’t have to come back.) Looking at my watch felt rude to me; in any case, I would probably get too involved in the conversation to remember to do so. So I finally gave in and put out a stopwatch, set to 8 minutes, two minutes before the 10- minute conference was up, so I could try to wrap things up neatly. I apologized for the stopwatch every time, but it was magical.
In any case, parent-teacher conferences aren’t neat. We are rarely together – and for good reason! – so this becomes one of the only times, minus occasional (hopefully) phone calls or meetings, to get the undivided attention of the person on the other side of the desk. Conferences are messy because teaching is messy, and parenting is messy, and being a student is just so difficult these days, it takes the full participation of both to make it through. Which, of course, doesn’t always happen.
In my school, for a number of years, parents could only make appointments with two teachers, though eventually that changed. Of course, language arts and math teachers were the ones that every parent wanted to see, and those of us who taught these subjects had every slot filled for the first and, often, second day of conferences. Our conferences on that first day were always 12:30 to 2:30 and then 5 to 7:30; I tried desperately to get out of the building during that break in between, though sometimes I was still setting up for tomorrow’s class, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to do at the end after pure exhaustion set in. There was supposedly a bathroom break built in, but if your conferences were running over, you’d better move fast.
There were many years when I felt sick at the end of conferences, dehydrated and woozy, my brain reeling with all of the concerns, the disappointments, the difficulties in many of my students’ lives. And yet, as I would head to my car, gratefully taking in the cold air, I usually felt pretty damn good, too, thinking about the kind words parents had said to me, the many ways I had made a difference in their children’s lives – and sometimes even in their lives, by those words they would live by long after the conferences were over.
And – let’s face it – I felt a surge of extreme joy, because another day of conferences was over.
* I used the word “parents” here for brevity’s sake, but the correct term is really “parents and guardians,” of which there were always a few: grandparents, aunts or uncles, step-parents, foster parents, and so on.