By Christopher Lehman, Founding Director (@iChrisLehman)
Here in New York City, we are in Parent-Teacher conference season.
I remember preparing for these as an early career teacher. I always worked hard—pulling all-nighters—to collect “proof.” I wanted to prove to parents why their child was excelling or failing. I wanted to prove that my grading was justified. I wanted to prove that missed homework was a problem, that poor test scores were an issue. I wanted to be ready to prove to parents why their child received the rating he or she did.
I suppose in my mind I thought my rewarding or punishing through a rating would somehow change things. “I just have to help this parent see what is going on here,” I’d fantasize, “and then things will change.”
Now, as a parent, preparing to attend my children’s conference nights, I see things completely differently.
The thing is, I already know how my children are doing. In fact, I’ve known for years.
I already feel my daughter’s love of maps and frustration with word problems. I already know my son’s obsession with vocabulary and need to focus his attention more.
I could give my children a grade in every subject area, before walking into the school building. Actually, I think my kids could, too. According to John Hattie’s meta-analysis, almost all kids can. He puts “self-reported grades” at the top of all of his famous “influences” on student achievement. Kids are incredibly good predictors of how they are doing in school.
Which makes me wonder why so many of us obsess over the grade justification portion of these nights.
What I Most Want from Parent-Teacher Conferences
Now, sitting on the other side of that conference table, I want something much different.
It may seem simple, but what I really want is to know my kids are loved. To know that they are seen. And I most want to enter into a professional conversation about what we, the important adults in their lives, can put in place over the next several weeks to continue their growth.
My children have already built a sense of themselves, even at these young ages. Finding out if they are “below, approaching, meeting, or exceeding” any given standard feels moot. To be reminded that math is hard or reading is going super well does little to help us grow as a learning family.
I am reflecting now that the “prove it” from my Grade Book was less important to changing my students lives. I should have, instead, spent that time talking with families. Learning about their children from their years of expertise raising them. Brainstorming together about next steps.
More Ask and Listen
While not all families are the same, what seems to cut across most research on school-family involvement is the critical need to develop trust. When families feel they are respected, that teachers truly care about them and their children, and when they feel safe, children have greater opportunity to excel.
Starting Parent-Teacher conversations with questions, instead of “proof” can go along way. Ask about siblings. Ask about what families feel proud about so far this year. What they are most worried about.
Then turn to that old sage: every child is someone’s most precious gift. Treat them that way.
As conference season begins, there are many more ways we can – or perhaps you and your colleagues already are – rethinking Parent-Teacher conferences. We would love to hear about your ideas and reinventions in the comments section below and feel free to link to your own related posts.
- This report from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory is detailed and provides many points of reflection for educators and communities on how families interact with schools.
- This piece from the Harvard Family Research Project describes four emerging trends in reimagining parent-teacher conferences.
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