Thursday, November 12, 2009

Family Conferences

One of the cool parts of my job is doing family conferences.

Am I glad when I finish the last one? Yes.

Do I think, "Whew, don't have to do that again until April!"? Yes.

Family conferences are a lot of work. They take energy, focus, schmoozing skills, and tact. Sometimes, things you never anticipated arise, and they can push you off-balance. Some families make you nervous, make you wonder, "What kinds of things is she going to complain about this time? What could I have done wrong?"

But, all in all, I have a lot of fun at conferences. This year, even though I don't enjoy their children as much as I have previous classes, I really enjoyed all of the family members I met. I was impressed by their familiarity with their children's abilities, interest in the curriculum, and desire to understand how I teach. Today, I had a parent come back for the second meeting in two weeks, just because she didn't really understand her notes on solving math problems the "new" way when she got home. She wanted an extra math class with me so she could help her son with his homework. What could be better?

I have also figured out, after all these years, how to say a lot of things to families. I know how to tell you that your child has a lot of catching up to do in reading, or has frequent temper tantrums. I know how to explain why I don't teach your child to borrow or carry in math, and I can almost always get you on my side in that battle. I know how to break the news that your child is so very wiggly that he can't really get his work done, and I know how to say that I think we might want to have your child evaluated for special education services. I even know how to give you suggestions for disciplining your child, or for stepping out of the regular power struggles you find yourself in at home.

The biggest, best secret I have about family conferences? It's that I can nearly always connect with a family member if I let you know that we share a fondness for your child. I always know what positive things I'm going to say, the strengths your child has revealed in these first two months of school, the promise I see. I probably have a cute, funny, or smart story to tell you, and I convey as much warmth as I can in those stories. I spend a good part of the conference connecting, building bridges, so that you and I are definitely, by the end of our 30 minutes, on the same team. And I always, always, always give you, the family, the benefit of the doubt. I let you know that I know that you want the best for your children, and that you are doing the best you can to get it for them. Because the truth is that in 9 years of doing this, I haven't ever met parents who didn't want the best for their children.

I worried a bit this year that I didn't quite convey the full seriousness of some of my students' academic difficulties. I don't think families left my classroom feeling urgently concerned and, honestly, some of them probably should be. But I don't want to send them home feeling hopeless, or stressed so they will pressure their child too much, or upset at me, the messenger. I felt like my biggest job at this, the first conference of the year, was to build that connection. If we have bad news to talk about more later on, at least we'll have this strong foundation on which to build.

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