Things I Know 121 of 365: Parent conferences should be amazing

The institution of grading students on an A through F scale has done a horrible disservice to education. It has falsely given the impression to generations of students that the teacher or the professor has some ultimate authority over the value of their work, as if their own assessment of what they were doing was somehow secondary.

Michael Winetsky

Teacher conferences at my high school included the teacher and my parents. As was reported back to me, my parents would travel from classroom to classroom listening and questioning as each teacher explained a semester’s worth of work and learning in about 5 minutes.

My part of the conference came once they arrived home.

“What do think Mrs. Henning-Buhr said about you?” my mother would say.

I’d fumble through an answer, and we’d move on to the next teacher.

Though I never saw them play poker, my parents would have run any table they chose.

As I explained my perceptions of a class and guessed at my teachers’ takes on our learning relationships, my parents sat in perfect stoic silence. Not once did they give so much as a raised eyebrow to indicate what I was saying was at least close to what they’d heard.

The things of which I was sure, like my grades, were of no help.

“I got an A in that class,” I would say.

“But what did the teacher have to say about your learning?” my stepfather would reply.

We would go ‘round and ‘round like this until I started talking about my actual experiences in the classroom without mention of my scores.

Grades have been on my mind this week as we wrapped up conferences at SLA. Twice each year, advisors sit down with advisory students and their parents to look over narrative report cards, discuss the previous quarters and set goals for the time ahead.

Because we have all an advisee’s narratives in one place, the conference can be about a larger picture than my parents’ 5-minute discuss-and-dash approach.

It’s not perfect.

For all of the community we’ve built and the lengths to which our students’ teachers have gone to qualify the learning for the term, we still have discussions where parents ask their kids, “Why did you get a B in Class X instead of an A?”

I hate these conversations.

I realize they come from years and years of the adults in the room being conditioned by grades, but I still hate them.

If a student was completely lost in the tall grass of algebra at the beginning of the semester, earning C’s and D’s on work, but found his way through it with support and guidance from the teacher and peers, a grade based on the mean average from the quarter is not going to denote that progress.

Depending on any number of factors, that student final grade could be a B or a C.

The dangers of grades are reflected in the conferences.

In an attempt to put more ownership of the process on the students, my co-advisor and I ask our advisees to lead their own conferences.

The look through their narratives and their report cards, take notes on what they want to highlight and then, on the day of the conference, lead us through a discussion of their learning.

Some are rockier than others, but all of them have more student input than any conferences my parents had with my teachers.

What I haven’t quite figured out is how to help students move away from a defensive posture when speaking about their grades and learning.

To a student, whether straight A’s or report card potpourri, every advisee takes on an almost apologetic tone as we wind our way through the conferences.

Often, I’ll interject.

“Learning is difficult. Meaningful learning is even more difficult. You did a lot of work in the last quarter to learn, you should be proud of yourself. I know I am.”

I’ll get a faint smile and sometimes a “Thank you,” then we’re back to defense.

Maybe I should be taking my parents’ approach, but with a minor tweak.

Maybe I should keep the narratives and the report cards from the students and start every conference with the same question, “What good things did your teachers have to say about you?”

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