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How to win at parent-teacher conferences.

Since I spent a decade of my life as an elementary school counselor, you’d think that attending parent-teacher conferences on the parent side of the table would be a cake walk. You would be wrong. Regardless of which side of the table you’re on, these things often have one tragic flaw: sometimes, someone on the teacher side has a personality that better suits him or her for work as a hermit. Or maybe an HR rep for the Spanish Inquisition (I’ve met my share of terrible parents, too, but that’s a different story).

So, when faced with the Teacher Who Will Not Retire/Leave/Stop torturing children using my tax dollars to gorge him/herself, a few tools can be handy to have (I don’t mean bring a hammer to the meeting,  but it can be tempting).

We had such a meeting for Boy 3 yesterday. He’s a sixth grader, which is a terrible thing to be.

3 has cruised through his academic career to date mainly on his adorableness and inherit genius. When confronted about his frequent mid-day naps in first grade, he gave his teacher one of these looks: http://hero.wikia.com/wiki/File:Puss_in_Boots_Eyes.jpg

And she let him nap in class.

SO, he gets to middle school with the expectation that he can continue to charm his way along, not turn in any work, ace the tests, and be perfectly fine. We tried to warn him that middle school teachers are somewhat less susceptible to kitten eyes than elementary teachers, but we’re adults and therefore unwise in the ways of the youths.

We requested the meeting because 3 is making C/D/Fs in all of his classes, in spite of the kitten eyes and acing the tests. He apparently hasn’t turned in a homework page in weeks- he does the work, he just doesn’t turn it in. Somewhere, there is a dragon sitting on a huge pile of homework, generated but not turned in by, 1 and 3.

Anyway, his father and I turn up at the appointed hour to see what we can do about this mess. 3 does not want to repeat a grade, and he knows he won’t touch an x box until he’s 30 if he doesn’t get it together pretty fast. I had requested/demanded nicely that 3 also attend the meeting, which puzzled the evil teacher, but they fetched him anyway.

To open the meeting, one of the teachers (none of whom we’d met before) reads a list covering 2 lined pages of sins and maladroit actions of 3. 3, in his defense, sat and listened, turning very pale but not using the Eyes.

I then broke in and requested that we open the meeting by telling what 3 is doing well.

This was hard for the Evil Teacher. The other 3 easily came up with how smart he is, how friendly he is to other kids, how he can make A+ on tests, etc. Evil Teacher began with the yes buts. I detest the yes-buts. They are the heart and soul of passive-aggressive nonsense and are frequently the underlying cause of relationship problems. She starts with, “Well, now 3 is a smart boy, WHEN he decides to use it”.

I managed to supress an urge to bang either my own or Evil Teacher’s head on the desk. Instead, I summoned my Skillz and said, “You kind of backed into that one. What can you tell us that is going WELL?” Blink. Blink. One of the other teachers said something nice, and we moved on.

At this point, I pulled out paper and began making notes. When I was a counselor at a  school, I had forms for this purpose. When teachers don’t use them, I kind of know the meeting is really about shaming the child and telling the parents they suck rather than actually solving the problem. Few educators will admit this, but it’s true. Teachers, counselors, principals, etc who really want to help you will stick to a problem solving tactic and will almost always make notes.

On my improvised form, I write, “Date, Present, Identified Problems, Identified Solutions, Person Responsible, Follow Up Plan”. This is not rocket science, people. It’s very basic common sense stuff, but it really helps focus the meeting and often keeps Evil Ones from derailing the process and turning it into bitch-and-moan hour.

From here, it was a bit of an effort to corral Evil Teacher’s mission to shame 3 with her condescending remarks about both his observable behaviors (which are appropriate to discuss here) and his global self as a human (which is not). Fortunately, the other teachers are all good eggs and were able to identify very specific things 3 needs to do in order to earn better grades in their classes without condescending to him or making global inferences about him self. This was helpful.

At the end of the hour, I had a list of three problems and four solutions. Everyone in the room had some responsibility for the success of the plan (which is crucial), even though 3 himself had the lion’s share, which is appropriate because it’s his grade. When I got home, I scanned the notes into the computer and emailed them to all of the teachers and gave 3 my copy so he can keep it in his binder (it’s currently on the dining room table, but we’re making baby steps).

As we were leaving, Evil Teacher said, “It’s always nice to meet parents who care”. This is one of the most toxic things teachers can ever believe about parents. It’s charged with all sorts of race/class/gender judgments and indicates a very low opinion of humans in general.

I was so proud of myself for not throttling her, I can’t even tell you how much.

3 and I had a nice chat on the way home from study tables (he’s now staying after school 3 days a week until he’s on honor roll). He didn’t say it in so many words, but I think he was very grateful that the meeting was about things he can actually fix and not about shaming him for who he is. When I think about the damage done every day around the world by teachers like the Evil One, I get serious heartburn. Let’s focus on some solutions, people. There is a right way to handle these conferences.

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