It’s getting to be that time of year in schools. The end of a quarter brings a known litany of actions, meetings, communications, responsibilities, and, above all, emotions. Students are loaded with assessments (summative assessments or, as kids often consider them, the kind of assessments that “really count”); teachers are busy writing comments and calculating marks that truly represent student learning, while separating out behavior, work habits, and other attributes; and parents are getting prepared for conversations with their child with traditional comments that more often than not focus on how those marks could be raised. Why is the parental urge to focus upon improving grades while performing a report card autopsy impossible to resist? As much as parents, try to be balanced during that autopsy most report cards that students receive end up providing opportunities for deficit analysis! In other words, in what classes will their child work harder? How will your son/daughter raise those grades? Why don’t you really “get it” that this REALLY matters? I know this pattern well, I lived it for many years as a parent. I also know that reality means that the stakes are higher with high school students.
Do report cards provide opportunities for reflection and possible goal setting? ABSOLUTELY! Kids need to take on board comments and reflect upon their work and set high expectations for themselves. Parents and teachers need to support this process. However, while in the moment of those conversations avoiding judgment statements while asking provocative and thoughtful questions is an important line to draw. I remember a comment from a wise friend (a middle school counselor) while she witnessed my frustration with my then Grade 8 son’s report card, her words were “avoid expressing disappointment in him”. This was an important moment for me. Avoiding judgments, sticking to the facts, looking forward, focusing on the learning, maintaining perspective, and frankly knowing and remembering that the author of the journey is the student. It is their journey! There is so much to learn about doing good work, working hard, and maximizing your efforts but it’s their journey. It’s their journey to succeed in, fail in, undercover passions in, experience pain in, and find joy in.
The question I often ask of students is “What kind of a student do you want to be”? Until kids truly relate to this question and consider the implications, they will often be moving through the motions of being a student. It’s hard being a teenager. Teenage years are the most awkward stage in one’s life cycle. How many parents would want to be a teenager these days? Teens are exposed to overwhelming external and internal struggles on a daily basis compounded by hormones, social issues, school commitments, parental pressures, and other school stressors – not to mention chronic sleep deprivation and constant social media exposure. It isn’t getting any easier for teens. In fact, it’s more and more challenging. The pressures are 24/7 with issues constantly on their plates. Parental and adult judgment fuels the pressure.
Posing questions, supporting the construction of a target or an actionable goal (and how one will get there), serving as a role model, suspending judgment and unconditional support and love should flow from parents; all the while remembering that it’s about the journey for adolescent kids. How many adults (parents and teachers) were top ranked secondary students who knew exactly what they wanted to study in university and who plotted their adult course when they were 17? How many truly understood their passions when they were 15? The high school journey is layered with pitfalls, bumps, bruises, and opportunities.
One of those opportunities for learning, reflection, and opening communication is around the reporting and conferencing structure. Parent conferences are on the horizon. I believe parent, student, teacher conferences are very important. And, it’s very important for the student to be present for the conversation. Many years ago, I attended a profound workshop given by Dr. Michael Thompson (google him for his exploits). What follows below is a summary of his workshop on Parent/Teacher conferences. I urge parents and teachers to read this note and extract any nuggets that you might find useful for your next set of conferences!
My final suggestion for high school parents who are attending a parent/teacher conference with your son or daughter. After you have a conference, go out for a cup of coffee or a private meal with your son/daughter. Make it a special event, enjoy the moment with your child, talk about something other than school and, I abolutely guarantee, you will not forget the experience AND, in fact I can almost guarantee you that you will share a great moment together that you will be able to recall in the years ahead.
Adapted from a Dr. Michael Thompson workshop
(Dr. Michael Thompson is the author of Raising Cain, and has consulted with many schools over the years).
The following statements are adapted from a Dr. Michael Thompson workshop, Promoting Successful Parent – Teacher Conferences. The workshop was presented to administrators and teachers at a conference in November, 2000. Dr. Thompson speaks eloquently about various sources of concerns between parents and teachers with respect to parent conferences and offers a variety of tips for creating successful conferences. Below are some of his ideas.
Sources of Parental Fear
- Parenting is inherently difficult and no one is an expert at it. In addition, when you sit down with your child’s teachers, you are nervously aware of your amateur status.
- Child-rearing mistakes are on display through your child’s behavior in ways you cannot always know.
- Parents feel trapped by hope, love and anxieties (their own and their child’s).
- In some implicit ways, the teacher may know more about their child than they do.
- Teachers have enormous power over children’s lives.
- Parents’ professional skills frequently have no bearing on approaching school or teacher.
Sources of Teacher Fear
- Teaching is difficult, hard to measure, and extremely personal.
- Kids distort teachers to parents
- Every teacher has been intimidated, at least once, by an “out-of control” parent.
- Teachers fear that parent influence may pose professional problems.
Tips regarding Parent Teacher Conferences:
Tips for Parents
- Be on time for conferences and respect time limits.
- Be honest with teachers and make your own concerns known.
- Show appreciation for teachers.
- Ask in advance who will attend, so you are not surprised.
- Reflect on your child before the conference and try to prepare specific questions to ask.
- Don’t bring your child or other children to the conference (unless asked to).
- Try to remember that your information probably came through a child’s perspective.
- Try to be open-minded. Try to listen first, reflect, and then act.
- Discuss the issues rather than the teachers.
- It is okay to feel defensive on behalf of your child, but act as an advocate, not an excuse-maker.
- Try not to put a teacher – or child, for that matter – in the middle of a family conflict.
- Ask for specific suggestions.
- Remember that it’s okay to be a real person. It’s helpful to let the teacher know that you struggle with parenting; everyone does. The teacher also struggles with teaching (and may be a parent as well).
- Remember that we’re all on the same side.
Tips for Teachers
- Avoid surprises (especially unpleasant surprises) by preparing parents in advance of meetings through letters and phone calls.
- Be prepared, have an agenda for parents, and have documented facts available.
- Establish a mutual agenda for the meeting, based on what you wish to cover and by asking the parents what they wish to cover
- Be honest, especially when you are struggling with a child, and encourage parental honesty.
- Use descriptive language, cite specific examples, and avoid judgmental terms.
- Get parents to talk about their hopes, their worries, and their expectations for this child
- Be a good listener.
- When possible, hold the conference in a comfortable, circular arrangement (no sitting behind a desk). Shake hands, make introductions, and get everyone’s name right.
- Recognize your own level of experience. Don’t take on more than your training and level of experience can support.
- Use humor. Let your criticisms be constructive.
- Try to remember that the child’s well-being is the purpose of the meeting.
- Know the child, “claim” the child, know his or her interests and personality outside your classroom.
- Don’t be afraid to check with parents on the progress of the conference; ask whether it is meeting their hopes and needs.
- End on a positive note.