A couple of days ago, the New York Times published an article about parent teacher conferences in New York City. These conferences, which one interviewed parent describes as akin to the "running of the bulls" in Pamplona, are worth really considering. Is the way most schools hold these conferences in the best interests of all involved? Here's the BASIS Independent take below:
BASIS Independent Schools do not hold formal Parent /Teacher Conference days. This practice can surprise some parents. What parent does not want the opportunity to talk with their child’s teachers about their progress, challenges and victories? What teacher does not want to reassure parents that their children are in safe hands?
It seems so simple: set aside a day and let the adults talk. But there, embedded in that brief injunction, lie the two major problems with Parent / Teacher Conference days.
The nightmare of the schedule.
I think of these formal days as a leftover from an era of one-size-fits-all education in which schools can seem to function like mid-twentieth century factories: “Dear Parent…you want to talk with your child’s teacher? You are welcome of course, but it must be on this day, at this time, and you will have 7 minutes before the production line moves to the next parent. The production line is sacrosanct and never stops.”
As for the teacher, consider that which is asked of them: “Dear colleagues, you will prepare to speak to all of your parents from morning to night about their children. We have provided breaks in your day, but of course parents will be late and conversations will run over the allotted 7 minutes, so bring some Kind Bars. Do not raise any genuinely troublesome or puzzling issues about a kid, as they require time. You have 7 minutes. Make it work.”
Behind the apparent openness of the Parent / Teacher Conference day is a subtle message from school to parent: “This is the deal: we hold this day for you and it is YOUR DAY! We all hate it as we are fried by lunch, which we never get, and there are hours more to go before we sleep. For the rest of the year try not to bother us too much as we are all very busy.”
Our practice at BASIS Independent Schools is quite different: schedule an appointment to talk with the teacher, by phone or in person, as you see the need. All you need to do is email the teacher and find a mutually agreeable time. Children go to school for the entire school year, so the communication flow between parents and teachers should do the same. How much more meaningful and productive will that conversation be when it is about something concrete, at the moment in which parent or teacher feel it is necessary to talk? And they will have the time.
Where is the student?
Sometimes of course, the adults just need to be alone to talk, especially when children are younger. But what message is sent to the older student when in the big meeting, with parents or guardians turning their day upside down to talk with the teacher, they are absent?
We believe successful and happy students feel empowered and in control of their learning, and in ways small and large each day, from an entry in the CJ to a chat in the Head of School’s office, we live out the truth that the joys, the struggles and the rewards of learning are for the student themselves to grasp and master. Learning must begin and end with them.
We do not always have the student at the parent conference, nor do we always have the parent in a student conference. The key is that our practice begins with student accountability: at BASIS Independent Schools we always start with the student and this question: what can teachers and staff do to support them with whatever challenge they face? Students, teachers, parents, they all can request conferences, which usually last about 30 minutes.
As parents, we cannot love our children enough to make them happy, and we cannot protect them enough to make them successful, independent people. It is their journey, so let us give them their say…not at a time decided by an annual administrative calendar meeting, but when all those who care about them, their parents, their teachers, the student themselves, think it right and best.
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