Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Parent-teacher events

It's time for parent conferences, parent evenings, back-to-school nights, and all the rich variety of ways that schools devise to bring families into schools to build important connections and begin essential conversations (as Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has so aptly called them) between teachers and parent/guardians.

As much as anything, parents and guardians want to be reassured that their children are in good, caring hands and that their children are doing what is necessary to be successful in school. For schools, the time is right to make sure that teachers are confident and comfortable either sitting down with individual parents or standing up to explain what they do to a room full of them.

For new teachers, especially, these events can be nerve-racking, and so it is the job of department and division leaders and mentors to work with new teachers to develop successful approaches or even something like scripts. For class presentations, the teacher should be ready to introduce himself or herself, to discuss the aims of the course, and to model in some way the classroom culture that the students experience. The "Be yourself" advice that is true for a classroom of students is every bit as true when the desks are occupied by curious parents. Some teachers will want to try a class-like exercise, but this should be simple, contained in its aims, and clearly connected with the purposes of the class. As parents we have noticed that these events don't always provide opportunities to establish relationships with our children's classmates' families, and a clever teacher might even integrate some "getting to know you" elements.

For conferences, teachers need to prepare themselves by having anecdotal and specific information about each student; what families want to know most is that a teacher knows and cares about their child. The point is to talk about the child, so the focus should be on aspects of behavior and performance and not just on grades--I always advise keeping the gradebook off to the side, closed but bookmarked, and not in front of me like a sacred text. Teachers should not be afraid to ask questions: "How does the student talk about the class at home?", "What are the student's interests?", and "What are your concerns?" can yield really valuable answers. Above all, the teacher should have some positive things to say, observations of strengths as well as weaknesses. Behavioral concerns should not be whitewashed, but they should be presented based on anecdote and not as labels or judgments. Teachers must be careful about either dragging other students' behavior into the conversation or about shooting themselves in the foot by alluding to general problems in the classroom. Good teachers understand that children of particular ages will have particular foibles and refer to these not as character flaws but as developmental issues to be acknowledged and dealt with as part of helping the student grow up.

Teachers almost always dread events involving parents, but in my experience such things almost always go well; parents genuinely appreciate caring teachers and precise, well-intentioned feedback that they can use to support their children in finding success in school. There are always a few parents who in the course of their children's education will feel the need to launch a zinger question or comment at a teacher, but the best deflection is either a bland "I think that's a great question (because often it is, even if framed unpleasantly), and it's something we think about quite often" or to suggest a separate conversation at a later time. (I once innocently asked such a question of my spouse when I sat as a parent in her classroom, assuming that I had pitched her a beachball that she would hit out of the park, but the way I phrased it so flustered her that I am still ruing that moment six years later.)

The economic turmoil of recent weeks will be having an unsettling effect on families, and so there may be some new symptoms of parental anxiety around the very appropriate but usually unspoken question, "Is the money we are spending on independent school worth it?" The best answer is not so much a specific cost-benefit analysis but rather what I would call a cultural response by the school and all of its teachers. Families are paying the long dollar to have their children challenged, nourished, prepared, and above all cared for as individuals. Parent-teacher events are the ideal opportunities to showcase the depth of the school's collective affection and concern for its students, and above all, teachers should understand this and see this as a primary goal of these occasions.

In troubled times, especially, using family-teacher events for sharing both positive feelings and well-meaning concerns about students can be extremely comforting for both families and faculties. We all found that to be true in September of 2001, and it will be no less so now, and so let us enter the season of such events in a spirit of positive anticipation and mutual support.

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