I had done it a million times before...except this time it was different. I was sitting on the other side of the table. It was early February, and despite the fact that I had requested the meeting, I could feel the nervous flutter in my stomach that could only be considered nerves. I had requested this conference as a way to decide whether our oldest was ready for kindergarten or would be better off with one more year of preschool...but what I left with was something that completely changed my thinking.
My First Parent-Teacher Conference
It didn't take more than a few moments to realize this conference was not going to be what I expected.
As the teacher handed me the report card for my sweet preschooler, she dropped the bomb.
"She isn't making progress."
Four simple words...my heart nearly fell out of my chest. I could feel myself begin to sweat. My daughter seemed to be rapidly acquiring her early reading skills. How could I have been so wrong?
While I nodded and smiled, trying my best to maintain attention and ask the kinds of questions that would help me develop next steps. Wavering between blurry-eyed tears and fierce momma anger, I looked at the data. She had only identified seven capital and even fewer lowercase letters correctly. That couldn't possibly be right, could it?
"Of course," I found myself saying, my eyes shining with unformed tears. "We knew she might be better off with an additional year of preschool before heading to kindergarten."
It wasn't a lie. My husband and I had, in fact, discussed whether kinder was the logical next move for our petite preschooler. However, when the teacher mentioned that while she would be happy to have our daughter another year, she 'might' be better off in another program...she wasn't a good candidate for even an advanced (2nd year) pre-k program. My heart again sank.
My mind hit rewind to the prior day... I could see her sweet little four-year-old writing on my big whiteboard writing "sat", "bat", "cat" independently. Instead of asking the question I should've asked, I instead asked a question that I knew would make me happy.
"How's she doing socially?"
Of course I already knew the answer...but I needed some positive news. Yes, I asked a question just to give myself a few minutes of brightness in my otherwise earth-shaking conference.
The conference didn't last much beyond that, but I couldn't tell you much more about what was said. At that point, I honestly didn't have any emotion left to listen. As I walked out the door, the teacher called behind me, "We won't give up on her!"
The words rang hollow... She hadn't even bothered to tell me anything until I requested the conference. I didn't buy the story.
I didn't turn around. I just kept walking so she wouldn't see the tears in my eyes.
The Post-Conference Breakdown
As I tearily rehashed the experience with my husband, I could feel my anger rise along with questions.
- Why hadn't I asked about what extra supports she was giving?
- Why hadn't I heard about this earlier?
- Why did I have to request the conference to hear this? What if I hadn't ever asked?
- How could these results even be accurate?
As I came to grips with the experience, I started to think about it through my 'teacher lens'. There were so many things I should've done and asked, but there were also so many things that the teacher could've done to make the experience less overwhelming.
Yes, we all have those off-days, but as educators, it is our job to help parents support their child's learning, yet I left with nothing more than the fact that I needed to find my daughter another program.
Of course, the teacher in me also insisted I retest her...and discovered she knew nearly twice as many of the letters as her classroom assessment had suggested. I also began pulling together materials to pre-teach and games and fun activities to review...but that is for a different post.
What I Learned...and Felt
In hindsight, I know this is preschool. It isn't rocket science...it isn't life or death. An extra year of preschool isn't a bad thing, and we are hunting for a program that will be just right. The perfect mix of play, music, early literacy and numeracy skills.
The ferocity of the emotions that hit me during the conference really made me think more deeply about how I frame parent-teacher conferences in the future. I never want a parent to feel blindsided. While we have to discuss hard topics sometimes, I also want the parent to see me as an ally instead of an adversary.
5 Conference Commitments for the Future
I've shared by five biggest take-aways from this experience below. Each one represents something that reflects the thoughts and emotions I experienced during my conference, and I believe all five are critical for helping teachers work more closely with all families, rather than alienating the ones we need to reach most.
- I will remember that every child is somebody's baby. While they might be a handful or a struggling learner, to their parents they were the answer to innumerable prayers. They are doing the best they can with the information they have, and if they knew more they'd most likely do more.
- I will open with the strengths. My daughter has some rocking' social skills. She is helpful, polite, and kind. She is a good friend and loves stories. In fact, her listening comprehension and vocabulary are both advanced for her age. Just by starting with these facts, our conference could have gone completely differently.
- Reach out early and often. Yes, I hate parent-teacher conferences (as the teacher). It is never fun to give parents news that their child isn't on-track. However, I would rather reach out early and be proactive than to blindside a parent with the news.
- Provide a list of ways I am going to support the child at school and a few suggestions on how to support him or her at home. Again, it seems simple. However, it helps unify our purpose. We are both their for the child rather than a shameful feeling for the parent.
- Never....ever....ever say I won't give up on a student to the parent. Of course, I WON'T ever give up on a kid, but when you hear those words come out of the teacher's mouth the first thing you realize is she doesn't think your child is going to catch up. In my case, she's four...and she isn't really that far behind, but even if she was, I would rather end the conference with something that makes the parent feel hopeful instead of defeated.
Needless to say, my first parent-teacher conference did not go quite as expected. While I left with a heavy heart, I am thankful that I have the knowledge, skills, and resources to ensure my daughter doesn't fall behind.
However, many of the families we work with don't have this same background. I can't imagine how this conference would have shaken me had I not been an educator. I can't imagine hearing my child is at the bottom of her class and walking away without any solutions to help her. It is our responsibility to support our families and work to create the best outcomes we can for children. Today I am even more certain of that than ever.