Veteran teachers have their own version of the scary monster stories big kids tell around the campfire to frighten little kids. They wait patiently in the teachers’ lounge for the arrival of an unsuspecting student teacher, then spook the rookie with tales of the Parent From Hell.
By the time my first parent-teacher night rolled around, I’d heard so many hair-raising stories about ill-mannered, intoxicated, or unsavory parents that the event seemed more like Halloween. One story in particular, I remember, involved a parent who smelled bad.
Most of these stories, however, had acquired through many retellings the larger-than-life flavor of tall tales, and I approached conference night with confidence in my growing teaching skills and what I considered a good rapport with my students. Besides, I figured, only the parents of the good students would show up anyway.
Nevertheless, I was a little uneasy as I waited for that first mom or dad--arranging and rearranging my grade book and a stack of homework papers on a table in the library. I didn’t have to wait long. Soon after the school reopened at 6 p.m., a short, nervous-looking woman walked in and introduced herself as the mother of Catherine M.
Catherine was a quiet, unassuming 8th grader in my all-but-unassuming third-period American history class. Piece of cake, I thought. This first parental contact promised to be an easy one. I flashed a politician’s smile, introduced myself, and began by saying that Catherine was a well-behaved student in what was sometimes a difficult class.
“I know,’' Mrs. M said, “and I want to know what the hell’s going on in there.’' In a shaky but determined voice, she lit into me, demanding to know why her daughter’s grades were slipping. “If you can’t control that class,’' she said, “I want something done about it.’'
I could feel my face turning red and my confidence crumbling. How, I asked myself, could this happen? Here I was, during my very first conference, face to face with a Parent From Hell!
Mrs. M’s tirade put me on the defensive. Turning quickly to the grade book, I showed her that Catherine had failed to turn in a couple of homework assignments. And, I explained, though the quality of the work she had turned in was generally good, she had scored poorly on several tests and quizzes. Mrs. M was not appeased. She kept demanding to know what I was going to do about the problems in the class. She said her daughter had told her it was unruly and defiant. If I couldn’t handle it, I shouldn’t be there.
Indeed, the class was a rough one. The consensus in the teachers’ lounge was that I was getting a good baptism by fire. In the class were not one or two but six or seven potentially disruptive students. This often left me stamping out a brush fire in one place while another flared up elsewhere. The first couple of weeks had been rocky. But recently, I had sensed that I was gaining control. Bad days nearly always stemmed from lackluster planning on my part. The class responded well to challenging and creative lessons, and some of the most disruptive students were also the most eager and vocal participants in group activities. A review game based loosely on basketball, greeted with yawns by my more genteel second-hour class, generated intense competition among the raucous third-hour.
None of this, however, was going to get me out of my jam with Mrs. M. Once she’d gotten wound up, she couldn’t seem to stop. She wasn’t about to be soothed with platitudes or further excuses about her daughter’s class being a disruptive one. Finally, I thought of something concrete and immediately wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me sooner.
The day before each test or quiz, I’d been having hour-long review sessions after school for anyone in either of my classes who wanted to attend. Not many did, but the few who showed up had improved their scores substantially, and it was fun to work with some of the students outside the normal class setting. Catherine had attended none of these sessions and hadn’t mentioned them to her mother. We quickly agreed that Catherine would begin staying after school on these days and that both Mrs. M and I would pay closer attention to her homework assignments.
The rest of the evening went smoothly. Most of the parents were supportive and friendly. Several apologized for their children, and one or two confessed frankly that they were very worried about their son or daughter and didn’t know what to do.
After conferences ended, I told my supervising teacher about Mrs. M, and we went to the office to take a look at the files. It wasn’t just in my class that Catherine was slipping, though the C minus she had earned in history was her lowest mark. My supervisor and other teachers offered support--and even a few explanations. “She’s discovered boys,’' one teacher said. Indeed, I had noticed Catherine making the morning laps around the hallways arm in arm with a skinny 9th grader.
As for Mrs. M, they agreed that she was a “difficult parent.’' A Parent From Hell.
But despite those reassurances, I couldn’t quite write the whole thing off as just a bad experience. I kept thinking about Mrs. M and what she’d said, and I gradually began to realize that she was right. I had essentially ignored her daughter and several other students for the first six weeks of school. They sat quietly, didn’t cause any trouble, and their grades were neither good enough nor poor enough to attract attention. They had been, at least to me, invisible.
The next day, I made it a point to say hello to Catherine as she came into class. “My mom said you were really nervous,’' she said sheepishly, the way kids do when they’re a little embarrassed by their parents.
I realized later that that was the first real conversation I’d ever had with Catherine. A few days later, as I walked down the hallway during my prep period, I spotted Catherine sitting in the front row of another class. I stopped, catching her eye, and waved. She smiled and gave a shy wave back, obviously pleased. Funny how such little things can transform an anonymous face into a real person.
Catherine’s work didn’t improve tremendously, and we didn’t become great pals. But I made sure to say hello in the hallway and to call on her more often in class. I tried to do the same for the other students I’d been neglecting in a sort of “don’t bother me and I won’t bother you’’ way. I started making sure that Catherine got her work in, and she came to a couple of my after-school reviews. By the Christmas break, she’d raised her grade to a B minus.
I now realize that, far from being a Parent From Hell, Mrs. M had just been doing her job. She was frightened about her daughter’s education, and she’d done something about it. In the process, she’d taught me a lesson about overconfidence and reminded me that all my students are important and deserve attention, not just the noisy or eager ones.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Parents From Hell