Nestled between the anticipation of the first day of school and the joy of Thanksgiving break is a less celebrated phenomenon: parent- teacher conference season.
I’ve been attending such conferences since Cooper was a baby and his child care center summoned me to review a checklist of age-appropriate behavior. Now, as an elementary school teacher in my third year, I’m also conducting such meetings. It’s not easy for either side.
As a parent, it’s difficult to sit before another adult, the one who sees your child more often than you do most days, and hear strengths and weaknesses boiled down to a few phrases. It’s hard to see the essence of your child, the person you worry about and care about and love most of all, boiled down to a reading level and a math assessment and a couple of quotes.
As a teacher, it’s difficult to truly know a student after only seven weeks of school. At the same time, it’s difficult to fully describe the child in only 15 or 20 minutes.
During Cooper’s first-ever conference, more than 13 years ago, the teacher told me she was concerned that my son had no fear of strangers. “He will smile at everyone,” she intoned. “He will wave at everyone.”
Her stoic pause and intense eye contact told me that I, too, should be worried, but I couldn’t understand why. I was on edge the rest of the meeting, unable to focus on all the boxes with checkmarks, instead internally fretting over my firstborn’s lack of discernment.
It’s been like that ever since — well-meaning teachers, excellent teachers, reporting data that attempt to define my children.
Can they sit on their pockets during calendar time? Can they sit in a chair for a lesson? Can they stand in line without talking?
Can they identify letters and sounds? Write letters? Write a complete sentence? Write a complete paragraph? Can they count? Add one-digit numbers? Subtract? Solve multistep word problems? Solve division problems using area models?
It’s all important, yes, but it doesn’t add up to the total child. All that data doesn’t reflect the heart and spirit of a person. It doesn’t necessarily reveal resiliency or a delightful sense of humor or a healthy dose of whimsy. A 20-minute conference can’t begin to capture the soul.
Knowing all of that makes it even more challenging to be the one responsible for collecting data and anecdotal notes, for reporting the academic, social and emotional essence of a child.
When I see a mom wrestling her fingers or biting the inside of her lip, I want to reach across the desk and hold her hands. I want to say, “Let go of your worries. Nothing I can say about how your child performs at school changes who you are as a mom or how fiercely you love that baby. I’m offering only a tiny window into your whole child’s world.”
I don’t say all that. Instead, I say things like, “I love having your child in my class,” and, “Your child is a valuable member of our classroom family.” And then we look at reading data and writing goals and math assessments — because that’s what school is about.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.