Our older son had a significant speech delay and a summer birthday. We decided to send him to preschool on time, and he did fairly well. But, his anxiety and speech challenges led to our decision to work with the school and teachers and repeat his preschool year; so, he was in preschool for two years and attends the Pre-K class this year. The school has been wonderful in supporting our decision and communicating his socialization successes and learning gains.
I attended my first parent-teacher conference this week as a parent instead of a teacher. I knew that our son’s teacher would show me examples of his handwriting, paper cutting, gluing, and other fine and gross motor skills work. I knew she would discuss his behavior in class and interaction with the other children. I knew she would tell me what we can work on to support him at home.
I also knew that she would talk to me about my son as the small human that he is. I did not hear about any data, any test scores, or any state-level assessments. Yes, this is because he is in Pre-K. But, what if every teacher approached this week’s parent-teacher conferences in the same way, regardless of the grade level?
An article by Randy Turner, a former English teacher, got me thinking about this idea of humans, rather than data, in the classroom. I also spoke with several parents and attended a community meeting this past week regarding issues in my local school district, and the theme of teachers and kids, not test scores, was prevalent. One parent even said, “I don’t care about the test scores. Well, I care about them, but you know what I mean.”
I did know what the parent meant; in this age of Common Core, we speak about kids and schools and teachers in terms of numbers and not in terms of people. We can change the course of the discussion this week, as thousands of parents enter schools for conferences before Thanksgiving break.
Last week, I urged teachers to have TRUTHful parent-teacher conferences. In that article, I pointed to states like Colorado and Florida that are making strides in the Opt Out Movement and shared information on opting out in Pennsylvania. I heard from several teachers who said they planned to share the opt out information this week with parents; but, I also heard from a few teachers who were afraid to do so because they do not know what administration would do if they found out what the teachers were doing. Fear is understandable in the current climate, though I urge teachers to keep in mind that the current course will not change without their courage to speak up and share information with parents.
One thing that all teachers can and must do this week during their conferences is to put the kids back at the heart of the discussion. Talk about them as the creative, inquisitive young people that they are. Talk about their progress in terms of learning and understanding. Talk about their challenges and struggles in terms of obstacles that can be met with a team approach from school and home. Don’t talk about them in terms of percentages, DIBELS levels, or predicted scores.
Better yet, help students lead the discussion during the conference. If you’ve been keeping a portfolio of their work, ask them to choose two or three samples to share with parents during their conference. If you don’t have time to do this in class this week, ask students who attend the conferences with their parents to go through their folders while you begin the conference and then bring them into the discussion with their samples. Facilitate the discussion by asking them which samples they chose and why. Encourage them to talk about their success as well as their challenges, because they will take ownership of their work and their responsibilities moving forward if they take part in the decision-making process.
My favorite line from Turner’s article is: “There is no data that has ever been created that can replace an excellent teacher.” He is exactly right. But, there is no number that truly represents what a student is capable of, or already is achieving, either. Make your parent-teacher conferences count this year by talking about kids, understanding, and learning instead of the data. The parents will thank you for it.