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Dreading Parent-Teacher Conferences

October 17, 2010 | by Emuna Braverman

How to make the encounters positive and productive.

Judging from Jeffrey Zaslow’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal (10/06/10), I am not alone in my dread of parent-teacher conferences. And while I can’t beat the second-grade teacher in Michigan who told a mother, “If your son doesn’t go on Ritalin, I’m retiring,” I have definitely had some less than stellar experiences.

There was the time I explained to a teacher who was busy trotting out the standard 'this-student-needs-to-work-harder' mantra that working hard was in and of itself a challenge for this particular child. “Well, tough for them,” responded the thoughtful teacher.

Or how about the teacher who decided to analyze us, “You have a large family and this child just isn’t getting enough attention. Hence, the poor grades.” If this teacher had done her homework (!) and read the files, she would have seen that this particular child tested significantly below grade level and that her grades were not poor but rather a tremendous accomplishment, the result of lots of extra effort by both parents and child.

Or there was the time the teacher couldn’t even wait for us to arrive but had to call on the phone and begin to list my child’s problems and difficulties. “Could you start with their strengths and what you like about them?” I requested.

But it’s too easy to just bash the teachers. There are fantastic, devoted teachers from whom my children have benefited tremendously, and there are those who seem to exemplify the popular dictum that “Those who can’t…” Likewise there are good and attentive parents and demanding and destructive ones.

Everyone wants to be appreciated and most teachers deserve it.

So how do we make parent-teacher conferences if not a pleasant experience, at least not an awful one? The Wall Street Journal piece has a number of suggestions. The one I try to use most often is to view the teacher as your partner. In addition (though they don’t state this), be appreciative. Teaching is a very hard job. It’s not a job I would want. It’s not a job I feel remotely capable of. When one of my children tells me about the (good-natured) antics of their class, I laugh, “Thank God, I’m not their teacher.” And in most classrooms, my children are learning and growing and I am grateful to the teachers for the experience.

So, just as I wanted the teacher to begin with praise of my child before we got to the areas that needed work, so too with the teachers. I try to begin (or at the very least end) with praise – and empathy for the difficulty of their task, especially amidst severe financial constraints and recalcitrant students and parents.

Everyone wants to be appreciated and most teachers deserve it.

There is also a self-serving motive here. We want the teacher on our side. We want them positively inclined towards our child. We can’t bully them into that perspective.

And it is a partnership. “Is there anything we can do to make your job easier?” my husband likes to ask. Presumably we have the same goal. It’s more likely to be accomplished if we work together and not at odds.

The Torah teaches that there are three partners in the creation of a child – the mother, the father and the Almighty. I would add that during their school years, their teachers need to become our fourth partner. They need to invest in their relationship with our children and we need to invest in them.

Parents also need to be honest. Yes, there are some poor or inadequate teachers. One year, one of my children had a teacher who clearly was depressed and not suited to the classroom. The administration acknowledged the problem but was reluctant to make any changes. “We owe you one,” they said.

But our “little angels” don’t always live up to their names. We need to recognize that our children may be unmotivated, too talkative (why did I see that on so many report cards?), struggling with the work or in other ways not behaving or achieving according to school standards. This is our responsibility as well and we need to step up to the plate.

When spouses complain about each other, it is important to remember that, with some rare exceptions, it takes two to tango. There are two sides to every story. The teacher-student relationship is very similar. Sometimes there is an abusive teacher, someone who should be removed from the system, but frequently, despite our child’s innocent protestations, there are two sides to the story.

This is a good starting place for any adversarial situations that are described in the course of parent-teacher conferences. “Why don’t you tell me the story from your perspective?” “What do you believe happened?” “Why do you think you and my child having such a hard time?” As long as the questions are asked with concern and respect and not in a confrontational manner, you can probe more deeply and probably arrive at a fuller, clearer picture of the situation.

One of the mothers interviewed suggested bringing chocolate bars for the teachers. It’s just a small token of thanks. It’s funny – we always bring miniature chocolate bars to hide in our children’s desks for them to discover the next day. Why shouldn’t the teachers get a treat also? They are working at least as hard.

Chocolate goes a long way towards solving many problems but even more important than chocolate (there’s something more important than chocolate?!), is gratitude. In initiating the plague of blood in Egypt, Moses was forbidden to strike the Nile because it had hidden him as a child. The Nile didn’t actively make a moral choice to hide Moses. Nevertheless he still had to behave gratefully. How much more so for those who actively give to us and to our children by extension? And who chooses more frequently and constantly to give to our children than their teachers? We owe them so much and if that’s the attitude we bring to parent-teacher conferences, it will be a more fulfilling and productive experience. Usually.

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