The Covid 19 pandemic has forced our hand in so many ways, requiring that we dramatically change our everyday practices. It has also provided us with opportunities to reimagine what we do in virtually every enterprise; offering the challenge to do things differently, and perhaps more effectively, if we only pay attention and have the will to act.
Fall Parent/Teacher conferences may be an example of such an opportunity.
It’s become a bit of a tradition. Early in the school year, parents of elementary and intermediate age children are invited to communicate with their child’s teacher(s) in what is called a Parent/Teacher Conference. Usually about this time of the year, mid-October, these conferences are meant to establish a relationship between the school and the families of the students the school is meant to serve. Normally, these conversations occur in person, part of a complex schedule where teachers are expected to have meaningful conversations with the parent or guardian of each of their thirty-five charges (assuming elementary) over the course of a couple of days in 10 minute blocks. Now, due to pandemic-induced safety protocols, these meetings are occurring virtually (assuming that every household is equipped to participate in a virtual conversation). Well-intentioned to be sure, but I suspect they are both awkward and ill-timed for parents and teachers alike.
Awkward because they hold an expectation that a meaningful dialogue will include a status report of the students’ academic progress. Consider that expectation. I, as the teacher, have not known this child previously. If I’m an elementary school teacher, he/she/they is one of thirty-five children I am getting to know and understand simultaneously. For secondary teachers, this parent’s child is one of 180+ students on my case load. We have only begun to build a relationship (in some cases a fragile alliance or truce), and I have only interacted with and observed this kid for a few weeks. Any prognosis of their academic achievement level is preposterous at this point. So, the feedback offered to parents defaults to benign statements, a delicate mixture of concern and praise.
“So far, he’s completing his work and turning it in. He seems to be taking it seriously.”
“Elaine seems to enjoy reading.”
“Juan is well liked by his classmates.”
“Elijah is a bit squirrelly at times. He seems to have difficulty concentrating.”
“Abigail is a pleasure to have in class.”
“David is very polite and respectful.”
“Kelly certainly is social!”
As the parents leave these meetings to the safety of their vehicle for their drive home, I’m confident that they take comfort in the positive things they heard, while responding a bit defensively to some of the comments offered that might suggest their “little darling” is something less than a model student. When all is said and done, what did that 10 minute conversation really accomplish?
I mentioned that this traditional approach is also ill-timed. Certainly, the lack of real achievement evidence so early in the year is problematic, as described above. But, the timing is also an issue for another reason. The beginning of a school year involves the deliberate establishment of routines and procedures. As these become habitual, classrooms and entire schools experience an academic momentum that, once underway, is tragic to interrupt. Think of a train leaving a station, gradually gaining velocity until it reaches its cruising speed. Suddenly, it brakes to an abrupt stop. After idling for a period of time, it slowly begins to reestablish the energy required to reengage with what was initially started. The same thing happens in schools. The positive “groove” is stopped for two days to accommodate these conferences, only to be slowly regained afterward.
How did those 10 minutes really inform the parent or the teacher about this child in a meaningful way? Perhaps of greater issue, what was the effect of this two day interruptive pause in the instructional trajectory of the children?
Is there a better way to accomplish the targeted outcomes of parent/teacher conferences that is less disruptive and more informative? I believe there is.
Before I explore my fantasy conference scheme, we need to be reminded of the big picture. A holistic, authentic educational experience that even comes close to delivering the education kids deserve is one that is relevant to the student. It is an experience that is equitable, personalized and tailored to the needs, and interests, of the learner. It is impossible to deliver this type of experience absent some clear insights into the student, and a genuine appreciation of who they are - what makes them tick. Traditionally, these insights are gleaned over time. Time is the operative issue. We lose valuable time while gaining our understanding over time.
So, if I ruled the world and had the full support of the professional associations, the school board and district leadership, what would parent/teacher conferences look like?
First, they would occur earlier in the academic calendar. To minimize the adverse impact of disrupting the instructional “flow,” fall parent/teacher conferences would occur within the first two weeks of the new school year. Ideally, they would occur even earlier, like during teacher pre-service week (assuming the teachers’ union would bless such a thing). The information we want, the insights we need as the consequence of these discussions cannot wait to be unfolded over the evolution of time. The earlier the better.