I have been involved in hundreds of parent-teacher conferences, some of which have been genuinely productive. However, in a fifteen-minute parent-teacher conference, both sides have a strong tendency to generalize. I would wager that more than half of my conferences over the years have gone something like this:
Parent: So, how is my son doing?
Gibbs: He’s doing fine.
Parent: He likes your class a lot. He likes soccer more, but he does really enjoy your class.
Gibbs: Thank you for saying that.
Parent: Does he participate in class?
Gibbs: Sometimes. He could participate more.
Parent: I always tell him that. I tell him, “You should speak up.”
Gibbs: It’s hard with teenagers.
Parent: Well, they’re afraid of getting laughed at.
Gibbs: There’s really no reason for him to feel that way.
Parent: I tell him that.
(both persons sigh and look away)
I will grant such conversations are pleasant enough, and there is an incalculable value to parents and teachers simply sitting across from one another at a table and chatting amicably about the little matters of the classroom. Such meetings are not wasted time. However, far more may be gained from what little time parents and teachers have at conferences, though preparation is necessary. To such an end, I send out an email like the following one in the days before conferences are scheduled:
Before we sit down to talk at parent-teacher conferences this week, I wanted to give a few suggestions on how we can all get the most out of our time together. It is my experience that meetings which begin with very general questions rarely yield as much fruit as meetings with a few specific issues on the line. “How is my son or daughter doing in your class?” is too vague a question to result in a useful exchange of information. If you have not already been contacted about unusual failures or successes in the classroom, the answer to the question, “How is my son or daughter doing in your class?” is simply, “Just fine. I do not have any concerns about their behavior or work.”
Rather, let me suggest a few particular questions I would like to address at parent teacher conferences. We have limited time together this Thursday and Friday, and just a bit of preparation can go a long way in making our conversation meaningful.
What are two or three things about your son or daughter that would be valuable for me to know, but which I probably wouldn’t figure out over the course of the year unless I was specifically told about them?
What is the most important thing you want your son or daughter to take away from Humanities class this year?
What kinds of activities do you do in your home which reinforce Veritas’s commitment to cultivating virtue?
You might also ask your son or daughter this question before we meet: On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means “I almost never participate in class” and 10 means “I make strong daily contributions to class discussions,” what number would you rate your own participation?
Of course, I am also happy to discuss any particular questions or concerns you would like to address.
During parent-teacher conferences, when I ask parents what single thing they are most desirous that their son or daughter gain over the course of the year in Humanities class, the most common answer is, “I want my son or daughter to become a better writer.” This particular answer is so common, I think it best to address it generally before we sit down to talk.
I also want your sons and daughters to become better writers. All of the teachers at this school are responsible for making your sons and daughters better writers. No single teacher or single class is uniquely responsible for giving students writing feedback and instruction. Rather, every teacher is involved in this labor. Good writing is a manifestation of good thinking, and every teacher at this school is engaged in the work of helping your sons and daughters become more lucid and reasonable thinkers. At present, Veritas does not offer classes which exclusively focus on writing. Writing is a necessary component of every class. Offering a “writing class” would be a good bit like offering a “thinking class.” What is going on in Rhetoric and Latin that necessitates a separate class just for thinking?
Students occasionally write essays for their Humanities classes, but this does not mean that Humanities is a de facto writing class. The primary goal of Humanities class is the cultivation of virtue through reading and interpreting Great Books. Inasmuch as writing essays serves students in the cultivation of virtue, writing assignments are given. When I was in high school, I was a very competent stylist, but I was also a very shallow person. Some people might have mistakenly taken my abilities as a stylist to mean I was a “good writer,” however, for many years, I simply hid the shallowness of my opinions behind a well-turned phrase. If I was a “good writer,” I was nonetheless a poor thinker, for which my soul suffered. Every teacher at this school wants far better for your sons and daughters.
I look forward to talking with you later this week.