October typically signals the season of colorful foliage, cool nights and crisp days, pumpkin-spice everything, football, hunting, Halloween and, yes, parent conferences.
Teachers stress out over just about everything. If you don’t believe that, try hanging an “out of order” sign on both of the pop machines in the faculty room, then sit back and watch the fireworks begin. On our secretary’s phone, the top numbers on the speed dial menu are: 1. Fire/police 2. Coke/Pepsi and 3. Everybody else.
Parent conferences are one of those things that teachers fret about and spend countless hours researching and preparing for. Visit any school the week of conferences and you’ll see teachers and staff arriving early and staying late getting ready for parent meetings.
Parent conferences have changed over the past quarter century in terms of what is covered, what is sent home, how many times per year they are held and how long each conference lasts. We used to hold conferences three times a year (fall,winter and spring) but now, at least at the elementary level, we hold them twice a year.
Technology has changed the way we store, retrieve, interpret and record student data. I remember entering student scores and percentages along with citizenship scores and comments all by hand in my roll book, then taking them home and rewriting them on a homemade form. Yes, it took a ton of time, but at least I had control over when and how it was done. A few years ago I entered all my comments in the form on the computer, and it printed out with everything EXCEPT the comments — maybe no big deal for you keyboarding whizzes out there, but for someone who types about 17 WPM on a good day, I was hosed. I’ve hand written my comments ever since, my way of keeping “old school” alive I guess.
The official acronym for conferences is SEP, which means Student Educational Plan, but according to most of my teenagers when they were in school, it meant “Come to Jesus meeting.” Being a teacher and a parent, I’ve experienced conferences from both sides of the desk. As a parent it was always difficult to attend conferences because we had so many kids in school at once there was no way we could ever get to all the kids’ teachers. We had several who were self motivated, independent, organized and enjoyed school, then there were the ones who began “confessing” stuff as we hit the front steps of the school.
Some aspects of the SEP conference and accompanying report haven’t changed that much over the years. I found my fifth-grade report card (Pupil Performance Report) from 1968 where my favorite teacher, Mr. Wade, wrote: “Chad is not paying attention in class as he should. More effort (and effective study habits) is needed during study periods” Mr. Wade was not only painfully honest, he could also see into the future as he perfectly described 95 percent of my attention during faculty meetings. I’d like to see a shift to focusing more on kids mental health, coping and surviving skills at school and less on statistics, numbers, charts, and graphs. I understand the need for “evidence of growth” and “best practices,” but I get much more mileage out of a kid explaining to his or her parents that the brown fuzzy blob on their paper with pretzels sticking out of it is a buffalo.
My second year of teaching I found out that our new superintendent’s son was going to be in my class. No pressure right? Take an already nervous teacher, tack on the task of presenting evidence of learning, and you have the perfect recipe for stress pie. I gathered all of the numbers, charts and scores to show Mom and Dad and started our conference. Unbeknownst to me, the couple who left right before my meeting with the superintendent gathered up all of the paperwork on my desk, including the ones I needed for my next conference, and left with them. I was sweating profusely as I heard myself saying intelligent stuff like “It was just here” and “I know I printed those scores off” well, fortunately the superintendent realized my dilemma and was kind enough to excuse a rookie error.
I think back on that conference (and others) and realize now I should have focused on the kid, not so much the scores. The reality is that most of these kids won’t remember any conferences, but they will remember how they felt in school. With 35 students and 15 minutes to conduct a conference, it’s a challenge to get connected, but I enjoy the opportunity. My son teaches high school English in another Utah district and has 240 SEP’s to conduct this week, that is if everyone decides to attend. I don’t know how he does it. I’m not sure if I know how I do it.
I’ve been teaching long enough that I now have students whose parents were my students, and I look forward to reconnecting with them at conference time, so talk to your kids’ teachers about the things that make a difference in their lives in and outside of school.
I happened to see the soda guy coming out of the faculty room today. It’s going to be a great week!
Chad Hawkes is a fifth grade teacher at North Park Elementary School. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.