Families & the Community Opinion

3 Phrases I Won’t Be Saying During Conferences This Year

By John T. McCrann — November 19, 2015 4 min read
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We have student/family/teacher conferences this week at Harvest Collegiate High School

As I’ve progressed in the teaching profession I’ve come to a different understanding of what this night means and how I can leverage it as part of the overall work I’m doing to make students better thinkers and problem solvers.

In reflecting on conferences from years past, I realized a problem. There are three phrases I used say which were undermining my larger goals. I’ll share them with you alongside my reasoning for striking them from my vocabulary.

1. “Do your work.”

At some point during every one of my first set of family conferences, I turned to the student and said one of the following: “Why don’t you do your work?” or “It’s good that you do your work.”

The problem with “do your work” is that deep learning and thinking are not necessarily what we do when we are asked to do something. I think most students heard “do your work” as an injunction to fill in blanks, take notes, or turn in something. I’m not opposed to any of these things in general—and, for the record, I have seen how that the habits of “doing work” can and often do lead to deeper learning—but to this phrase overemphasizes their importance.

I have precious little face time with my adult partners from students’ homes so I need to maximize the efficacy of these moments. Instead of speaking about “doing,” I’ll be focusing in on those deeper goals and things students should be learning.

In my class, this means giving specific feedback on how students are growing in their ability to design experiments, communicate ideas using math and science, and solve problems. I have collected evidence of student performance on these learning goals thanks to the data program we use, jumpro.pe, which allows us to do standards-based grading.

This shifts the focus of our conference discussions from “doing something” into “learning something.”

2. “This is easy.”

During my second year as a teacher, I called in a student’s father to talk about his poor performance in my class. Trying to be supportive, my principal at the time sat in. The principal had observed my class a handful of times and was convinced that the student’s low achievement was attributable solely to his “bad work ethic.”

“This is what you’re not doing?” the principal berated the student holding up a stack of assignments that the student had not completed. “This is so easy!”

The student slumped in his chair. His father scowled at all of us. The next day, the student turned in mostly completed handouts, but still learned very little and continued to struggle for the rest of the year.

To make the “easiness of the work” the focus of a conference conversation over-simplifies complex issues and undermines the larger goals of my course.

The work we do in class is not easy. We’re dealing with abstraction, complex relationships, and big ideas. I place students in problematic situations (e.g. Maze Moments) and expect them to find a way through to some new understanding. That’s not an easy thing to do.

Students who aren’t engaging with work regularly and in a timely fashion have an issue, but it is probably not that they have yet to realize the simple beauty of mathematics. Most likely there is something else going on, and I’d like to spend conference time uncovering what that could be..

3. “Thank you so much for coming.”

I started saying this at the beginning of each conference in recognition of a difficult truth. Many adults with whom I meet will have gone through stress and hardship to get to conference night. Many were unsuccessful in their own school and dread the thought of returning to a similar institution.

I still believe that the folks who make this night a priority are supporting the adolescents in their lives and deserve some recognition for putting that young person’s educational needs over their own comfort.

But gratitude from me doesn’t give this recognition or help anyone.

My “thank you” would suggest that they are doing me a favor by coming, when this quite simply isn’t true. It is their loved one’s education and future we are discussing.

“Thank you” gives the impression that I am serving the student and her/his family, which also not true. These are not customers coming to a restaurant where I am the maitre d’, but partners who should sit down with me to think about the joint task of creating a successful school experience.

Moving forward, I will greet family members with a warm smile and a “welcome to room 401, please come in and let’s talk about what’s going on in class.”

This is what I am thinking about as I go into conferences this year. What are phrases that you are committed to using or not using this year? Use the comments section or Twitter to share out some vocabulary that helps you steer these conversations toward growth and understanding.

Photo 1: https://unsplash.com/photos/zX9KPt1Hl_c. by Bethany

Photo 2: “ParentTeacherConference”. Licensed under CC0 via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ParentTeacherConference.jpg#/media/File:ParentTeacherConference.jpg

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