Thursday, April 21, 2011

Today we will have our spring parent teacher conferences. I pause to reflect on my years as a parent, attending these conferences, and my many years sitting on the other side of the table, talking to parents about their students.

As a parent, going to conferences was something I did because we were supposed to. With rare exception, the comments were the same. Your daughter is doing great in class, polite, kind, works hard. The rare exceptions were my youngest daughter in her few rebellious episodes in high school, where she tried to shirk her student responsibilities and cause a few minor disruptions, slack off on a few assignments. However, she and her teachers knew, overall, she was a good kid, just needing a little prodding from home to get her back on track. Otherwise, I often wondered why I took up the time of those teachers, going to hear the praise of my children.

As a teacher, I've come to understand how it is like to sit on the other side of the table. Often, you see mostly parents of the 'good kids'. It is easy to tell them how wonderful their child is, how much they contribute to your class, how much you enjoy having them. You really don't mind these conversations. They are easy to have.

Unfortunately, you don't often see the parents of students who are struggling, or persistently disruptive. These are frequently parents who do not have positive school experiences, and therefore now, avoid school and teachers at all cost. They already know what you will say about their child, and either they simply do not care, do not know how to fix the problem or are completely overwhelmed with their role as a parent already.

When the parents you need to see do come, often the conversation is awkward. The parent may acknowledge the problems, and want to work with you to find solutions. They accept their part in their child's educational success and honestly are willing to meet you halfway to find a way to make things better. They don't blame you the teacher, but do expect you to have answers and be realistic and positive about their child. While these meetings can be difficult, as a general rule, afterwards, you see an improvement with the child's performance in the classroom. Things look better, at least for while.

Other meetings do not go as well. The parent is looking for a scapegoat. They know they have no control over the situation and instead of trying to be a part of the solution, instead, make everything worse by finger pointing at the teacher and the school. It becomes a struggle, head to head, where no one wins. The child often leaves the meeting feeling as if s/he has won, realizing that the parent and teacher are at complete odds as to what to do. The child feels IN CONTROL, knowing this battle is a win-win for them, with the parent blaming the teacher and the teacher blaming the parent, when in all actually, the blame falls on the student.

The solution? I wish I knew... but the most successful conferences I've had, even with parents of difficult students, difficult parents, start with compliments. If you as the teacher can find positive things to share about that child, you set the parent up to realize you are NOT out to get their child. If you've taken the time as a teacher to share positives all along, if you've opened the lines of communication early on, if you've established a classroom of trust and mutual respect, the difficult conversations become easier.

When nothing seems to work, it is often best to cut your losses, say something with finality but sympathy, like, "I am sorry you are upset. Maybe we can continue this conversation at another time when we both have gained a new perspective and can get together with clearer minds about your child." Shake their hand and execute an exit.

The most important part of being the teacher at the meeting? Remember that every child IS indeed special, unique and loved. The parent, truly, in their heart, wants to hear good things, know their child is success and valued at school. If you, the teacher, can meet that parent with a positive outlook towards their child, half the battle is solved before it begins.

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