Thursday, May 26, 2022

I seriously dread Parent-Teacher conferences. And I say this as a teacher (I teach high school English at a local mesifta.) As a parent, I really don’t mind them so much. I want to know how my kids are doing, and my kids sure aren’t telling me.

A lot of parents hate conferences. You have to schlep out, wait in line, talk to a teacher, then wait in line again, talk to another teacher, and so on. And the conversations aren’t very productive because you’ve long since trained yourself to tune out when teachers are talking, and all you can think about, as the teacher drones on and on about your child, is that, as far as you can tell, this teacher is like a year older than him.

But parent-teacher conferences definitely stress me out. And for someone like me who isn’t great at making small talk, doing this with 40 sets of people I don’t know in a ROW is exhausting. I have one thing in common with these people, and that is their son. So I guess that’s what I have to talk about: How their son is doing.

“Which one’s your son again?”

No, I’m just kidding. I’ve never asked that. If I don’t know, I keep it to myself and hope I make it through the conversation.

Actually, the truth is that I commit the first few days of the year to memorizing the kids’ names. That’s my top priority until at least Rosh Hashana. PTA is three months into the year, and parents don’t take very kindly to, “I’m sorry, but your son looks just like Fishman.”

I almost had this problem my first year teaching. I was dropped into the job a week after Sukkos, and had three grades of 30 kids each—all the 10th graders looked alike; everyone in 11th grade had a brother in ninth, and I had to learn everyone’s names with enough time to also pay attention to how they were doing in time for conferences, which were before Chanukah. At that point I had two hours to speak to 60 sets of parents (again, because everyone in 11th grade had a brother in 9th).

But what I’ve learned since then, is that I don’t really have to give 90 distinct speeches. It’s not like the other parents are hovering near me and going, “Wait. He used those same words to describe OUR son.” As a teacher, you really only have to give four  basic speeches, because there are four basic kinds of kids, as far as 40-minute English classes are concerned. The parents just want to know which one their son is. Then they’ll ask more specific questions, and you can answer them until they either stump you or wander away to give the next set of parents a chance to pounce on you.

The first type of kid is the one who cares about class and behaves and does well, and you basically have to come up with five solid minutes worth of adjectives for the word good. The truth is I really don’t have anything to say to these parents that they haven’t heard over and over for the past 11 years. Yet every single one of them comes, because they love shepping nachas. They don’t care if you say things again, and they don’t care if, as a writer, you don’t feel right telling them things they’ve already heard—which is why you’re horrible at coming up with small talk in the first place.

The second type of kid is the one who doesn’t care, doesn’t behave, and doesn’t do well. I don’t really know what to tell those parents to their faces. I’m frankly surprised their kid even told them about conferences.

“He didn’t. He said it was visiting day, and that I should bring food.”

The third type of kid is the one who cares and listens, but for some reason, doesn’t do well, and I have to give the “Your son has a lot of potential,” speech, which is generally also what I say to the parents of the second type of kid. But honestly, I say it even if it’s true. So if you’re a parent, it’s kind of hard to tell.

And then there’s the fourth type of kid: the one who doesn’t care, doesn’t behave, and somehow still does well. Those kids are the worst. And I don’t say this to be petty. Grades are a system. The way it’s supposed to work is that if your kid doesn’t listen in class, he does badly, you get his report card, see that he’s doing badly, and then you come in and we talk about what we can do to inspire the kid from both ends. That way I can say things like, “Look, your son doesn’t always come to class. But he always comes home, right? So when you see him, tell him to come to class.” But if a kid does well even without listening, the whole system falls apart. “Why are you even here?” I want to ask them.

“My parents kick me out of the house in the mornings.”

And then, when those parents come to conferences in a good mood because their kid got 90s, there’s no way I want to volunteer to wreck it with the “Your son isn’t applying himself, but he’s still unfortunately getting good marks” speech. Thankfully, in six years of teaching, I’ve never had a single one of those parents show up.

But I do get other parents that are hard to talk to. For example, I get the parents who are there for their oldest child, and all of their other kids are in first grade, where conferences are more about figuring out how to gently guide the kid back on track using candy. And the parents don’t realize that somewhere between first grade and eleventh grade, the responsibility kind of shifts from the teacher to the student. Like they’ll say, “Why did my son get a zero on this assignment?” And I’ll say, “He never handed it in.” (I give the kids extra time to hand it in, but if they don’t give it to me by the time I mark report cards, I have to give them a zero.)

And the parents will say, “Well, did you ASK him to hand it in?”

I don’t know how to answer that. It’s not like he was holding it over his head and going, “No! I’m not going to hand it in!” I didn’t ask him specifically, no. These are teenagers, and I see them for 40 minutes a day. I don’t have time to go from desk to desk making smiley faces on everyone’s work and noticing who didn’t finish. I mark a stack of papers, usually in some kind of waiting room, I fill in the grades, and I go, “Oh, I guess that guy didn’t hand it in.”

Or they say, “My son says he doesn’t like doing work.” And I say, “No one likes doing the work. Even people who work don’t like doing work. I don’t like marking the work either. But I’m making them write. It’s a writing class. I’m not making them dig holes.”

Some parents don’t like conferences because they think the teacher is judging them the whole time: “Your kid doesn’t care about class, so you must not care.”

But I’ll let you in on a secret: We’re not judging you. We don’t have time. We’re just trying to survive the night and not say anything we’re going to regret. And if you took the time to come in, you’re obviously one of those parents who care. It’s not like you HAVE to come to conferences. It’s not like we’re going to take points off if you don’t show up, or call the kid’s grandparents.

“Hello? Your son didn’t show up to conferences.”

“Well, did you ASK him to show up to conferences?”

After six years, I’ve finally realized that the parents I don’t really want to talk to, for the most part, don’t show up. No one who doesn’t care shows up—unless they’re looking for a night out without the kids. That’s just sad.

By Mordechai Schmutter

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