Thursday, March 22, 2012

School Conferences: What I've Learned

We had all three of our children's school conferences last week, so obviously it was an exhausting five days of early releases, meetings with teachers and entertaining the children for an extra three hours every afternoon.  I was so relieved to send them back to school on Monday.

School conferences are not my favorite.

I didn't always feel that way.  When I envisioned  having school-aged children, I imagined the fun of being on the parent-side of a parent/teacher conference.  I imagined myself calm and happy.  i thought that once we got through the infant stage and toddler years, sending my children off to school would be as easy as pie.  And it was, for a short period of time.  At first, it was fun to sit in that minuscule chair with my knees tucked around my ears, and be shown the various art projects, essays and math tests my wonderful child had produced.  I enjoyed hearing how sweet my child was, how the world was his oyster and that when he spoke, rays of sunshine poured out of his mouth.  And then second grade happened.

I am a more jaded conference attendee at this point.  I'm not saying that my children are poor students or behavioral problems - quite the contrary.  I've just learned that I have to work harder to establish this fact and to ensure their good student status stays current and truthful.  Little children get by on their cuteness and the hope for future potential.  By the time children get older, you learn that their unique brand of cuteness is one that only a mother - and the occasional teacher - can truly love.

I have learned that it's a parent's responsibility to come prepared to a teacher conference and that fifteen minutes is not a lot of time to discuss a year's worth of academia.  The more experience me is willing to ask pointed questions, to demand thoughtful answers and to request further discussions.  I learned mid-way through Henry's school career that no one will stand up for your child's academic rights except for you and I've taken the role of Elliot Child Advocate very seriously.

For the most part, I am fortunate and I get good reviews from my children's teachers.  But that doesn't mean that I don't have to fight for my children's academic best interest from time to time.  For one thing, it's very easy to leave a 15-minute conference without learning anything about how your child is actually doing in school.  I am social by nature, and enjoy a good yap with just about anyone and teachers are no exception.  I've had to learn to stay focused and come prepared with a list of topics to discuss and to work through the urge to chit-chat.

The type of teacher to which The Children Elliot are assigned, plays a big role in the success of the conference.  As far as I can tell, there are three types of elementary school teachers and each has a different conference style.  Here's a summary:

Type Number 1:  The Great Teacher

If Elliot 1, 2 or 3 is very, very lucky, than he/she is being taught be a Great Teacher.  What is a Great Teacher, you ask?   A Great Teacher is one who loves her job and is on top of each and every student in her class.  The Great Teacher can give you a very detailed and thorough description of your child's positives and minuses (and they must be presented in that order).  Great Teachers will always have examples lined up to prove every point and solutions thought out in advance.  Great Teachers know if your child is just having a bad week or if they need extra help.  Great Teachers point out sections of your  child's work that you never would have seen on your own and even their criticisms sound like praise.  Georgia has one of these teachers this year and her conference was a complete joy to attend.

Type Number 2:  The Fine Teacher

The Fine Teacher is the hardest teachers to deal with and to read.  According to them, your child is not the best student nor is he/she the worst student and therefore, Fine Teacher has really very little interaction with your child at all.  This type of teacher can be dangerous - Handle With Caution.  The last thing I want if for my child to NOT comprehend something while his/her teacher is unaware that there is a problem.  It is my experience that children who "are fine" are often overlooked.  Most of our teachers are responsible for 23 students all on their own.  I figure that they are spending the majority of their energy helping the Not Fine category of student, while praising the Super Smarties for doing things on their own.  There's not enough time in the day to deal with those kids who fall in the middle.  But if one of those Fine Children is an Elliot, then deal with them, the teachers must!

I have encountered many a Fine Teacher at a fall conference.  So many that I now arrive at conferences with a prepared statement.  If told my child is "doing fine" (when I know for a fact that he comes home crying over assignments that he didn't understand or carrying a homework packet that I then have to teach her how to do) I say the following thing:

"We want (Insert Elliot Child Name) to have a very successful year.  We want (him/her) to be better than Fine.  He/She does not come from a Fine Family, he/she comes from an Excellent Family.  We expect him/her to Excel and Exceed Expectations.  We don not want to see a middle-level grade on his/her report card, we want to see the top grade.  Let me know how I can assist you to make this happen."

to understand YOUR goals for your children and they want to know that you are willing to put in a little effort, too.  Public School is definitely all about sharing the responsibilities and it helps teachers to know that you are right there to help.

Type Number 3:  The Crank

Ah, the poor, exhausted Crank.... Woe is them.  These are the teachers who either just don't like your child and are happy to let you know, or else they are tired of the whole teaching experience and need a huge raise and a stiff drink (neither of which they are going to get at our Public School).  We've encountered only a small number of these teachers over our combined eight years of elementary school conferences and consider ourselves pretty fortunate.  We did have one teacher who made our usually stoic child sob in front of us and then had to listen to her criticize the poor child for crying.  That was fun.

But for the most part, The Crank conferences are not to be taken personally.  I had one this year, who after complaining for five minutes about the upcoming kindergarten class (which has no connection whatsoever to me) came out of her pity party long enough to show me a beautiful essay written by my first grader.  Crank's good vibes didn't last long.  She could only come up with two things to say about Josie's writing - both minor and both negative.  So I did what I always do when confronted with A Crank.  I got to work and filled in the positives for her - "look at that penmanship!  Look how she stuck to the subject!  Look how many sentences she wrote in 10 minutes!  What impressive work for a 7 year old!" - hoping that my enthusiasm might bring her back from the dark side.  It worked, thank heavens, and she seemed more perky and complimentary by the end of our conference.  But now that I think about it, maybe that's just because she knew I was leaving....

This year was our first middle school conference and it was a doozy.  The quick 15-minute elementary school conference was replaced by a fast-paced 4-minute meeting that left Gordy and I breathless and reeling in the hallway.  Four minutes is barely enough time to utter a greeting and side down, let alone discuss a year's worth of academics.  It's obvious a whole new conference game plan is going to have to be established.  That's okay.  I like a challenge.  By the time Josie gets to Middle School, I'll have those four minutes down to a science!

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