Every time I arrive at an overcrowded school corridor to sign up for a three-minute parent teacher conference, I have the same thought: There must be a better way.
There are too many names on the sign-up list. The parents are anxious and antsy. It’s always too hot and crowded, and I immediately start feeling sorry for the teachers, besieged by questions.
With one child in middle school and another in high school, I am officially a veteran of New York City public school parent teacher conferences. I’ve developed a few survival strategies.
If possible, I take a personal or vacation day and attend the afternoon session in an effort to avoid ridiculous evening lines.Even so, I can’t beat the system.
It helps to divide the list between two parents or guardians (more would be even better, but even two is luxury). In large schools, you need a floor plan. A book and a bottle of water is a good idea. You need enormous patience and persistence, along with a list of priorities and specific questions.
It’s a good idea to sign up in multiple classrooms all at once, as long as you don’t mind racing up and down stairs and corridors while waiting to see if your name is called. You should always find out who the toughest grader is, as lines will always be longest. The teacher I mostly wanted to see this year was booked up within the first 10 minutes.
I sometimes wonder if the effort is worthwhile.
Always, it is. Not just because I might learn that a child has failed to turn in homework assignments or is too talkative (or quiet) in class. I get to ask and think about the kind of education I want my children to have. I leave with insights about how teaching and learning – the heart of what should be happening in school – are valued.
Research tells us that teacher quality is the single most important factor influencing educational outcomes. How do you measure teacher quality? The answer can’t be revealed within a three-minute conference, but you can learn a lot.
I was thrilled to hear a social studies teacher discuss his enthusiasm for Ancient Greece. I enjoyed hearing an English teacher explain why certain books were chosen and how 9th-graders struggle with Sophocles, spelling, and sentence structure. I heard another teacher’s philosophy about how children acquire language.
Over the years, I’ve heard the same child described as extremely quiet, or loud and disruptive. Sometimes I’m certain the teacher is talking about another child, not mine. Once, I asked if the teacher honestly knew my child’s name.
This fall was my first as a high school parent. During the visit, I tried to imagine what it must be like to be a freshman in a giant New York City high school, negotiating six sprawling floors in the four minutes between bells -- all the while toting as much as 20 pounds (I actually weighed it) in an overstuffed backpack.
Because there is an awkward high school student inside all of us, I remembered the distraction of hormones - a time when catching the eye of the cute boy or girl next to you and hoping a zit would disappear by the weekend - seemed more urgent than quadratic equations or the life of a cell.
During every conference, I question how teachers keep track of so many students. Some may have six or more classes, each with as many as 34 students. Could they possibly have something specific, insightful, or helpful to say about each one?
More often than not, I have been surprised to hear the answer is yes, although the quality of the feedback varies with the experience and enthusiasm level of the teacher. Some may be watching the clock, but I’ve generally found most to be gracious and patient, in many cases waiting long past conferences have officially ended to accommodate all the parents.
So is there a better way? Insideschools would like to hear thoughts and suggestions on how parent teacher conferences might be structured differently, especially in very large schools. What works?