The School Conference Blues

By KATHI VALEII

FEBRUARY 28, 2016

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Middle school parent-teacher conferences are tomorrow and I can’t bring myself to think about going.

It’s not the two hours I’ll wait sitting on hard chairs in the hallway, anticipating my allotted five minutes of playing musical chairs with each teacher.

It’s that I haven’t heard a teacher say one nice thing about my child in about a year.

When I was in middle school, my father was one of my teachers. One day in his seventh-grade social studies class, a friend sitting behind me somehow let the pencil in his hand fly across the room. To my friend’s utter horror, it hit my father, square in the middle of his overly large forehead.

The class fell silent.

The kid picked up his jaw from the ground, and then began rapid-firing: “Oh, Mr. Waite, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry!”

My dad’s stormy brow of intensity — what I referred to as his “serious lines” — smoothed, the corners of his mouth turned up, and he broke out laughing.

A big reason he became a teacher was that he liked kids, and he could delight in the absurdity of a roomful of seventh graders. I know he also had days of complete exasperation, usually with parents. I often overheard the phone calls: parents who thought their child could do nothing wrong, parents who didn’t support him, parents who were constantly attacking him and the way he taught or his expectations.

But even when he was frustrated with a student, he was upbeat, positive and full of support as he talked to the parent.

I’m beginning to wonder if my father is some strange middle school teacher anomaly — an empath with evolved communication skills — because this is not the way my child’s teachers interact with me.

My son struggles with organization and self-motivation. Because of this, even though he is in advanced classes, he’s not a top performer. But he’s certainly not failing or in trouble. He’s right in the middle, which is, I’m learning, where a lot of kids get lost.

Classes my child should be skating through, he has just barely passed. Not because he doesn’t know or understand the material, but because he is losing work or forgetting about work.

Scouring the Internet for organizational strategies that might help him, I found an article with a really familiar script. The writer’s experience with her child was so relatable, it felt as if it had been written after sitting and listening to the back-and-forth in our home over the course of a week.

And it was the first time I didn’t feel alone in watching my child flounder with managing his workload.

The article said that the demands of middle school basically outstrip many students’ cognitive abilities. Middle schoolers “freeze up” at all of the possibilities, and at all of the differing expectations of their myriad teachers.

What a relief to find that my child is on the spectrum of normal.

In all of the interactions I’ve had with my child’s teachers this school year, the commentary has been anything but reassuring about the normalcy of struggling with self-management and organization. The responses to my requests for feedback, basically on loop, go something like this:

“J had 14 opportunities to meet this goal. I reminded him on this day, that day and another day. I even made my classroom available during lunch period for three months — which he never took advantage of. He approached me four times for one assignment and he never kept track of it. I just ended up giving him half credit in the end. Hope this helps.”

Well, I suppose if you mean, “hope you feel like a complete and total failure,” then yeah, it helps a ton.

For parents, these brief interactions with teachers are about things that keep us up at night. They are about the people we love more than pretty much anything in the world.

I think back to three years ago and how terrified I was of middle school for my son. Would this huge school with 800 kids swallow him whole? Would he be picked on? Would he survive?

In his middle school career, my child has grown taller than me, gained more friends than I can name and learned to love running and drumming and student leadership. In that time, he has had perhaps 20 teachers.

Exactly two of them have ever said something notably positive about this amazing kid to me.

I wish that teachers would consider that as much as parents want to know about areas that our children are struggling in, we’re also wondering what teachers like about them.

Do they notice that my son gets along with almost everyone, that he loves to be included and joins all the clubs, that his friends mean a lot to him, that he loves to read and has a huge vocabulary, that he laughs boisterously, that even when things are hard he trudges through mostly with a smile, that he’s determined, he’s smart, he’s energetic, he’s optimistic?

I wish teachers would use the conferences, emails and phone calls with parents as opportunities to mention each child’s strengths as well as the areas that need improvement.

Not merely to make the parents feel better, but because the students deserve to be seen for who they are and not only for their ability to perform.

Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer and blogger who writes primarily about gender, parenting and justice-related issues. Her work can be found at The Establishment, xoJane, Mutha Magazine and on her blog, Birth Anarchy.

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