The business of parent conferences

March 16, 2008 at 7:46 pm Leave a comment

LIFE is like a business the father was telling me and his child. As he warmed to his theme he lost me, so I can’t recall whether his child’s grade was part of the product-mix, the prospectus or the marketing plan. Certainly it needed to be factored into the matrix for the overall offering… viewed helicopter, in the big picture on a blue sky.

This week was spring parent-teacher conferences at my school.

First, they work better when they’re student-parent-teacher conferences, with the student taking the lead.

In my old school in the UK it was really a big point that the conference was student-centered and student-lead. It works much better. Students almost always know how they’re doing and what they need to do in terms of effort, attitude and the like. And when they say out loud what’s needed for them to improve, then it comes much more forcefully than if the parent or teacher was to say the same thing.

You could call it a student self-assessment conference.

It’s also a chance for the child to see the adults most concerned about them, sit together and listen to their point of view. The listening is important. Not all parents, or teachers, are good at that.

It’s also a great opportunity to get beyond just the disciplinary stuff that parents and many teachers seem obsessed with… talking in class, not listening to the teacher and other stuff like that.

Are you happy? is a good question to ask a kid at a student conference. Is it working for you? is another. Is there anything we can do to help? What do you think? And then listen.

Paul, the head of my old maths (with an ‘s’ in the UK) department once told me one of those secrets-of-being-a-good-teacher… once the kids know you’re on their side, then it’ll work. And he was right.

The fall parent conference, in particular, is crucial to telling a kid you’re on their side. The are-you-happy? question can go a long way towards changing the student-teacher relationship overnight. If before you were adversaries, then after teacher and student can start to be a team working together to help the kid.

Here in the US the parent-teacher conference can be obsessively grade focused.

Armed with pencil and list of courses, parents go from one teacher to the next to ask the single question: “What’s the grade?” This can then be followed by versions of the good-cop/bad-cop threat and bribe speech on the need to get/keep those grades up. The kid rarely wins. Even a good grade often ends in a speech along the lines of well-we-need-to-keep-this-up-no-slacking-off-now.

Last year I had a father and daughter. He had taken an evening class in business leadership I believe. “Right,” he barked in opening, “I’m taking control of this meeting…” Clearly, it was not expected that I would respond. “Grade!?” he shouted.

She sat next to her father in terror, her face quivering with emotion. Overwhelming fear, but with a look in her eyes that appealed, screamed at me, “what you now say could condemn me to absolute misery and pain for the rest of my life… and certainly as soon as I leave this conference.”

Normally, the grade question is my cue to deliver my I’m-not-so-concerned-about-the-grade-I-want-the-student-to-be-focused-on-what-we’re-learning speech. This time it didn’t seem as if it would work.

The student in question was an absolute pain to try to teach. She was funny, cocky, self-confident, mouthy… and completely focused on destroying any progress in my class till she’d had the last word. The secret, of course, was to work out how to let her have the last word… and move on. Not always so easy. She often just got chucked out of class. Somehow all our battles, tussles every other day now made sense.

“B,” I invented. “She could get a B if…” I tried to continue, but by then the father was delivering his own speech that B wasn’t good enough. The lie had not really saved her, and alas it did not in the end do much to save or help us build a new relationship in class. In the pantheon of win some, lose some… I lost her. So, I suspect, did her father.

But back to my own don’t-focus-on-the-grade speech. Well… it’s three paragraphs above, and then I give the parent a rubric describing what it is to be an A, B or C student. I ask them to give it to their child and ask the child to tell them what their grade is. The kids are usually far more tough on themselves than I. And the rubric is like a To-Do-List of how to improve. Most parents are intrigued by the descriptions and seem to like the idea.

There are formulae describing this:

Grades = stress

Stress = no learning

The point is, judgemental letter grades (destructive, and certainly meaningless in the absence of any descriptive definition) do nothing for learning. Non-judgemental descriptions provide a learning-centered focus. And so, do help learning.

One last aside before I conclude: Grades can only serve a useful purpose if they help motivate a student to build meaning for themselves. Grades, if they must be used, need to be divorced from the destructive rank-and-sort mentality that so obsesses much of the US corporate education system.

Such grading guarantees Fs… it is a system of success and failure. The fear of the F is what motivates the successes going. You can’t have the fear, if you have no Fs. The system depends on the Fs for its seeming success. Except, it is not successful. The Fs are branded, and the successes often have little clue how to think creatively or critically for themselves… only how to collect points and jump through repeated hoops.

Many teachers feel most comfortable with a handful of As, lots of Bs and Cs and some Fs. The teacher who gets this out of balance is held in suspicion. Ranking and sorting is part of the job. Except it isn’t. The job is to help every student find their success within. Every class should be a classroom of As… or, rather, a classroom of positive and individual and unique successes.

Grades should serve the learning needs of each individual student as if they were in a bubble. The grade should have no role in comparisons with other students. Which means, of course, grades are redundant.

Far better would be to replace letter grades with descriptions… as some more progressive colleges and schools are now doing.

Finale. Of course, it is easy to be sniffy about grades and grade-obsessed parents. But there are real reasons driving very real concerns.

Grades are linked to numbers. The numbers build up an average, the Grade Point Average (GPA).

Forget the learning. The difference between an A or a B or a C could mean the difference in a GPA that qualifies for getting a scholarship or not getting a scholarship. It could mean the difference between affording a respected college or less-respected college or no college.

The obsession goes on. It could mean the difference between a good job… or even no job. A house, a health plan.

GPA is sorting, ranking and competition in an unforgiving society committed to competition… with no safety nets. This is a society that lives in fear.

For parents, it’s the stuff of sleepless nights. And for students too.

After all in America, education, as well as life, is a business.

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Entry filed under: Assessment + Grading, Student self-assessment, Thoughts from the classroom, What's on the PiFactory blog.... Tags: , , , , , .

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