Parent-teacher conferences were scheduled for the end of November this year. Even though it was a crisp fall day, I soaked through my blouse before I walked through the front door of school. No matter how organized I feel, these meetings are the most stressful part of parenting school-aged children.
One of the most influential moments in my life was my fourth grade parent-teacher conference. I knew I wasn’t Mrs. R’s favorite student, but that moment confirmed it. In front of my mother, she essentially dismissed my performance for the first marking period and really didn’t have many practical suggestions for how I could improve. I was invisible; and without overty saying the word, “lazy”. It was a wake up call and a challenge that gave me purpose.
The first meeting went well. Our son enjoys learning, is a good friend, and has a great attitude. His teacher is warm, clearly enjoys teaching, and genuinely cares for him. How cool is that! Its clear that Noah is proud of himself and his report card. The feedback she gives for further development and areas to challenge him felt ‘just right’.
Our daughter’s conference was a totally different story. It was the first time I attended a meeting for her alone and as I stared at her report card my heart sank. As usual, our little girl’s performance was mixed. Her card identified areas for needs improvement to outstanding. Yes, she has improved in behavior and is able to attend to ‘centers’ with less frequent redirection. Her reading is above average, but as a result of her expressive language difficulties she is unlikely to perform well on the testing planned for her grade.
Although her primary and special education teachers were well intentioned and very supportive, I checked out and left feeling hopeless. Our daughter’s performance is ‘typical’ for a child with Autism and I am still heartbroken. Even when my spouse is there, I leave just about every meeting in tears. Joyful for the gains we never believed she would make and sorrow for the glimpse into her socially restricted world.
As I prepare to leave, I want to ask more questions. What exactly are these tests? Are they sure she won’t be able to perform? We have always said, “She performs to expectations. If we give her the opportunity, she will get there.” Is she being labeled, pigeon-holed, and her potential dismissed? Did I ask the right questions or even challenge the belief that she would not be able to meet her next developmental stage.
By the time we got home, I realized I had slipped into a shame storm. Sara Lawrence-Lighfoot, the author of the Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other, identifies that there is “no arena where (parents) feel more exposed than at the ritual (parent-teacher) conferences that occur twice a year”. She also describes the many ways these meetings bring up a parent’s memories from their own classroom experiences. Essentially, I had relived similar feelings of helplessness from my own fourth grade parent-teacher conference.
Ugh! It took about twenty-four hours to remember that these meetings are always difficult. Although the first conference went well, I anticipated the worst. Could I really depend on this ‘stranger’ to care for my child as well as I could? Regardless of the answer, its worth remembering that these meetings can be challenging for the parent as well as the teacher. I happen to also have an uncomfortable history and a child with special needs. After a few weeks of processing, I feel like I walked away from this experience with a renewed sense of purpose. As a nine year-old I felt a very similar sense of purpose too!