As a novice teacher, I had butterflies in my stomach as I marched out of my house to face the first parent-teacher conferences of my career. Part of it was the freshly pressed suit and the designer tie I was wearing, rather than my usual khakis, button-down shirt and kid-friendly Tigger tie. But there was something else, and the closer I got to my elementary school, the more I dreaded some of the conversations I knew I was going to have.
You see, no parent likes to hear that his or her child isn't perfect. And while all kids are special -- and as a teacher of young children I always tried to appreciate the specialness of each child -- they also often have areas they need to work on, some minor, some more substantial. The great reader may have trouble getting new concepts in math; the kid who writes wonderful stories for Mom and Dad at home sometimes doesn't get how to manage a short persuasive paragraph; the boy whose parents think of him as "enthusiastic" at home can be disruptive in class. Then again, the kid who parents worry is painfully shy may blossom when surrounded by peers at school. And the homework avoider at home may be the teacher's helper in class. It's all a matter of perspective, and my perspective on the first morning of several days of conferences was decidedly unnerved.
The first couple appeared at my classroom door eager and smiling. As we settled in, I adhered to advice an experienced colleague had given me: Don't say too much at the beginning; let the report card and written comments do the talking. This was third grade, which meant that for the first time ever my kids were being graded with A's, B's and C's instead of the somehow gentler O's, S's and N's. When the parents saw the C's marching across their child's card, their smiles quickly disintegrated into looks of horror and bewilderment. And then a bit of anger.
"How can this be? We don't understand," the mother began. The father shot me a look as if I'd just kicked his dog. Through a forced smile I said, "Well, surely this isn't such a surprise. Hasn't your son been showing you his graded work?" He hadn't, it turned out -- and he hadn't been telling his parents that he'd been struggling in school, often failing to turn in assignments on time. They had presumed everything was fine. Now he was in the doghouse, but so, it seemed, was I. In their eyes, I was clearly to blame for not understanding and appreciating their kid.
Looking back, I fault myself. I should have communicated with these parents before the meeting, and let them know about missed or late homework.
Such miscalculations are just one of the reasons that parent-teacher conferences across miniature elementary school desks are a bit like marriage counseling, psychotherapy sessions and a cross-examination combined. From a teacher's perspective, these are among the most exhausting days in the school calendar. In the days before, teachers discuss what to expect from which parents -- who can be difficult and even confrontational, who is enthusiastic about the process, and which ones might require you to get support from a teacher across the hall.
The fall conferences can be a wonderful opportunity for parents and teachers to get a better perspective on a child's education and emotional growth. They are a time to build bridges and, for the teacher, to assess the important lessons already learned from the first part of the school year. But they can also be 20 minutes of recrimination and missed cues that make you wonder why you picked this line of work in the first place.
The divorced parents of one of my students made it clear from the moment they arrived that this was going to be a painful process. As I came to greet them, they were standing on opposite sides of the hall, in a heated discussion about two things -- the quality of the child's schoolwork and the fact that one of them had shown up late to an earlier joint appointment. I felt really uncomfortable as we sat down -- to silence and tension.
My opening joke didn't improve things, so I simply laid the grades and comments in front of them. After a bit, I began to speak about their child's strengths, but before I could finish the father began accusing the mother of being too easy on the boy while the mother rallied back by saying how hard the father was on their son. I began to feel like I was watching a bad episode of "Divorce Court."
I finally intervened, with all the frustration in my voice of a teacher stuck with indoor recess duty for five straight days: "Excuse me, but I think that you both need to leave the personal baggage behind and start helping your child here." I wish I could say that everything went fine after that in the conference -- and the school year -- but it didn't. The parents stalked out, and the kid's performance declined no matter how much I tried to reassure him that he was talented and smart.
One of the most common, and contentious, issues in the conferences centers on the catch phrase "gifted and talented," or G/T. This labeling allows students to be placed in higher-level groups in individual subjects. I'm not wild about the test used, but it's what the schools are given. The reality is that G/T labeling sometimes becomes a battleground between parents and the school. While parents may feel strongly that their child is gifted and talented, classroom performance may not show that to be the case.
The parents of one of my third-grade girls had just this reaction when they came in for their conference and found to their dismay that their daughter was a consistently B student. B is good. B means a student is performing satisfactorily. But not to these high-powered parents, who told me how gifted their little girl was and all about the wonderful projects and stories she was creating at home. They were upset with me and the school for failing to recognize that and for relying solely on the test cutoff. The conference didn't end well. But I heard what the parents were saying, and because she was in fact a very good reader, I did put her in the advanced reading group later in the year. I warned the parents that they had to work with her to help her keep up, and they did. In the end, they were happy with their daughter's experience, she felt good about herself for having mastered a harder task, and I felt I had made a good choice.
Even after five years in teaching, I never fully relaxed on the days I had parent-teacher conferences. But they taught me a valuable lesson about the need for parents and teachers to communicate early and often and to work together to get the best from the kids.
So the next time you attend a parent-teacher conference, remember why you're there: to embrace and support your child. And remember that the teacher sitting across from you is probably just as nervous as you are.
Ty Hreben is an actor who until this year taught at Somerset Elementary School in Montgomery County.