First Person

Focus on Gifts, Not Just Gaps: Parent-Teacher Conversations From a Parent’s Perspective

The author after a parent-teacher conference with two students and their family. —Nancy Ledbetter
The author after a parent-teacher conference with two students and their family. —Nancy Ledbetter
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In the movie "The Doctor," the surgeon played by actor William Hurt experiences a transformational shift of perspective when he undergoes treatment for throat cancer. As the surgeon suffers firsthand the many indignities the medical establishment can inflict, the experience of being a patient causes him to fundamentally change the way he interacts with his own patients. He begins to question many conventions of his profession that he had always taken for granted, and he becomes more respectful toward the patients in his care.

As teachers, many of us experience that same kind of professional transformation when, after years of talking with parents about behavior, homework, and academic growth, we suddenly become parents of school-age children ourselves and sit down on the other side of the parent-teacher conference table.

Here are four lessons I've learned from making that crossing:

1. Criticizing the child can shut down the conversation.

During my first parent-teacher conference as a parent, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher went on and on about how wonderful my daughter was. Perched precariously on the Munchkin-sized chair, I soaked it in like a solar panel absorbs sunlight.

At the end of the conference, I asked if there was anything Ariana needed to work on. Her teacher launched into a three-minute rant about how messy my daughter was. She jammed crumpled worksheets into her unzipped backpack at the end of the day. She lost library books in the deep, dank reaches of her desk.

At the sudden critical shift in the teacher’s tone, I felt an angry flush rise in my cheeks. How dare she talk about my daughter that way? Ariana could hear every nitpicky word, too—she sat a few feet away, coloring at her admittedly post-apocalyptic desk. My daughter, I wanted to inform this teacher-turned-foe, is perfect in every way. Only boring children have immaculately organized desks.

My defensive reaction taught me an important lesson: Dads and moms are like the Incredible Hulk when it comes to their kids. Say one critical word about their precious sons and daughters, and you better beware.

Now, when I’m on the teacher side of the parent-teacher-conference table, I keep that realization in mind. Every mom and dad wants to know that I see the same wonderful son or daughter that they do.

2. Focus on a child’s strengths.

For the past few years, I have tried to make parent-teacher conferences almost entirely positive: evidence of academic or social-emotional growth, a showcase of great work, and glowing anecdotes that show how kind, brilliant, or hardworking a student is. When behavioral or academic problems come up, I try to address them as they happen, rather than storing them up for the next parent-teacher conference.

A couple of years ago, I had an African-American student I’ll call Robert who had a history of getting in trouble. Robert only responded to positive affirmation—anything critical drove him into a downward spiral—and I soon discovered his mom was the same way. So, at the first parent-teacher conference of the year, I highlighted the positive: how hard Robert worked at math, how much he loved to read, his delightful sense of humor. I told his mom she was doing a great job.

She left the conference beaming. It had been a rare experience for her: a parent-teacher conference where not one negative word was spoken about her son.

Parents do need to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. But as teachers, we often spend way too much time on the bad and the ugly, while giving short shrift to the good. Moms and dads need to know that we see their child’s gifts—not just the gaps.

3. Speak in plain language about what matters to parents.

Earlier this year, I went to another parent-teacher conference for my daughter, who is now in 4th grade. Her teacher kept pointing to arbitrary numbers: 220-something on her MAP test in math, 230-something in reading, number on a graph riddled with confusing colors and lines.

I kept smiling vaguely and nodding as if it all made sense. But I wanted to interrupt her to say, "I don’t really care about any of that. How is Ariana doing as a human being, not a data set, in your class? Tell me about her strengths and her needs, in specific words that make sense. Is she kind to the other children? When do her eyes light up?"

Ever since the train wreck of an education law known as No Child Left Behind, education has been afflicted by a blind adoration of data. The first days of the new school year for teachers are often spent poring over numbers, with very little time devoted to the craft of teaching or children themselves.

Even for teachers, it sometimes takes a while to wrangle any sense of what the baffling array of numbers actually means. Imagine how parents feel. In most cases, they have never seen a single question from the test that yielded the scores. We might as well be pulling numbers at random out of a hat.

I have begun making a greater effort to speak in plain language and avoid jargon and acronyms. I tell parents what their children do well, what they need to work on, and how they can help their children at home.

When I have data to share, I do what I can to make it comprehensible. If a student should start the year reading on a level E and end on a level J, I pull an example book from each level to show her parents what those levels actually look like.

I also try to focus on the bigger picture. At our parent night last fall, after explaining the target reading levels, I offered a caveat: "If your child ends the year on the level where she’s supposed to be, but she doesn’t like to read, you and I have both failed at our jobs. Make reading time fun and cozy. Set your child up on the couch with a mug of cocoa and a pile of blankets. Snuggle in beside her if you can make the time. Reading should feel good."

4. Put yourself in parents' shoes.

As teachers, we’re in the habit of rambling on about MAP scores and the ominous-sounding benchmark exams. Many parents don’t know what the word "assessment" means, let alone "cut score" or "national percentile rank."

We should never talk down to parents. They’re just as intelligent as we are, and they love their children even more than we do. But we do need to take a moment to think through a parent-teacher conference or any other conversation from their perspective. What matters to them? What questions should we be asking in order to learn more about their child?

As a fiercely loving dad to a 1st grader and a 4th grader, my deepest questions for my children’s teachers are simple but not easy. Do you truly see my child—her gifts, not just her gaps? Her imagination and sense of humor, not just her test scores or how often she completes her homework? Do you know what she needs to thrive this year, in school and beyond? What are you doing—and what do I need to do—to make sure her whole self flourishes?

At the heart of it all, teachers and parents have the same job: to help children live the lives they dream for themselves. Let’s begin that work by remembering what—and who—matters most.

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