Can We Talk?

It happens about this time every year. School classrooms take some time off and become conference rooms. Parents come in and see the teachers to find out how Johnny is doing and it all becomes a test of the parent and teacher’s perspiration protection. Why does Mr. and Mrs. Doe come into Mr. Teacher’s room with so much timidity. Why did Mr. Teacher, just before the Doe’s showed up, pop a breath mint and say a prayer of panic? Why are Parent Conferences an object of such stress?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the fact that we have lost the ability to converse. Folks have been saying this for years regarding education: we just don’t know how to talk to each other anymore, and it not only affects Mr. Teacher’s literature class discussion, but it hits him in the stomach during the typical conference. When it comes to teacher conferences, we live in a two class society and I wish we would seek the third, or middle class, in this instance.

The first class of conference is the “feel good” class. Parents sign up because they feel they need to. Maybe nothing has been said by the teacher about Johnny’s performance, so they should stop in for a little check up. The teacher has not said anything about Johnny because Johnny is doing fine and he is too busy trying to put out the fires elsewhere to say, “good job” very often to Johnny or his parents. The parents arrive, introduce themselves, ask if there is anything they need to know, and get the “no, everything is just fine” speech for five minutes before leaving. This has not lasted much longer than the “hey, how are you?” “Fine,” routine that we all too often shoot through on our way down a hallway.

The second class is no better, and perhaps much worse. It lasts longer, but about as much is accomplished. It is the conference about Problem Pete. Petey is not doing well for Mr. Teacher. The grade card goes home, the parents sign up for the conference, and the stage is set for 20 minutes of heavyweight contention. The parents confer the night before: “I’ll say…, and then you will say…, and be sure to bring that test and show him…” The plan is in place. The teacher has his folder of materials. Both sides are armed. And as soon as the pleasantries are over (exactly 30 seconds into the conference), the barrage begins. Whoever fires first often “wins” if winning can be determined. The teacher states all the reasons for Petey’s failure, none of which has anything to do with the school or Mr. Teacher’s teaching. Pete’s parents fire back with this factor, and that assignment, and this unclear grading policy and etc. The list really is impressive, at least to the parents. And the twenty minute bell rings, the participants return to their corners, and Pete is still failing.

Let me dream about the third class or alternative to these two vignettes. How about if the parents and teacher both came together to converse? There is a verse and a con in that notion. The verse is definitely words, but words about Pete and his issues, not excuses or justifications. They should be words designed to help both sides see Pete more clearly. And the con there has to do with back and forth. Both sides are able to come together, to converse, to have a conversation about Pete. And as the teacher shares his side of the issue, and the parents explain Pete better to Mr. Teacher, the overriding agreement in the conversation is that Pete is a human, a young one at that, and that like all students he is still growing. And the teacher is a human, and can always grow in his skills. And the parents are not perfect, and welcome any help they can glean. And this very human endeavor of talking it through is reborn in this one little part of our dying culture. And if it is tended and nurtured, it might grow until once again we can have real and fruitful conversations again. And Pete in particular learns how to converse by watching his parents and teacher model it beautifully. God bless us one and all to be conversant.

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