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Why I Go To Parent-Teacher Conferences, Or, The Flip Side of Accountability

The final Parent-Teacher Conference of my oldest son’s academic career took place this March.

I didn’t go because I enjoy running up and down stairs, signing up for three minutes with one teacher, being told the wait will be 20 minutes, leaving to speak with another teacher, then returning to be informed that I missed my slot because the five people in front of me didn’t show up, or arriving on time for my slot but being told I will need to wait because people who missed their slot are now clamoring for an immediate audience.

I also didn’t go because I expected to be told anything about my student I didn’t already know. If my kid is skipping school, I get an automated phone call that day. (The phone call, however, comes after 8 PM and, if my child is missing, that’s 12 hours we’ve already lost looking for him.)  If my child is failing a class, I get a heads-up with the mid-term report card. (A teacher once called me to convey that my younger son got a D on an exam, and sheepishly offered, “I don’t think it’s a learning issue.” “Oh, it’s a learning issue,” I countered. “He didn’t learn the material.” I told him I’d fix it. I fixed it.)

I go to Parents-Teacher conferences because I want teachers to know my kid has an advocate.

I am hardly the advocate of my kids’ dreams – or their teachers’ nightmares. I have never ordered a teacher to raise my child’s grade. That sort of negotiation my kids are required to do for themselves. (My middle child, unhappy with how one grammar question was assessed on his final 6th grade test, looked it up over the summer and returned in September to argue his point!)

I have never complained that a test was too hard or my child wasn’t receiving adequate attention or demanded that my family’s vacation schedule be accommodated. But, by attending Parent-Teacher conferences, I am giving notice that I’m paying attention, so don’t mess with my kid.

What do I mean by “mess with my kid”? I’m not talking Choate Rosemary Hall, here, or even PS 194. I am talking about more mundane, daily instances.

When I was a Senior in High School, I received all A’s on my tests and papers. And yet, for my final grade, the teacher gave me a C. Why? Because I was an obnoxious, know-it-all teen.  I freely admit that I argued with her in class. I also stood up for other kids whom she picked on. (This was a woman who sorted students into groups, and called one  group the “Smart Table” and the other group “The Dumb Table.”) My father called the school. My father spoke to the teacher. She hemmed and hawed and flat-out lied to him, claiming she’d invited me to be part of this conversation but I’d refused. (In truth, she never said a word to me about it.) But, in the end, she changed my grade to the A I’d earned. She pulled the same stunt with other kids, too. Their parents didn’t call. Their C’s stayed on their transcripts.

I’m not teacher-bashing. My husband is a teacher. I know that, just like in any profession, there are superstars, there’s the majority middle, and there are the incompetents. With the latter, I grit my teeth and tell my kids to ride out the year best they can; that’s how life is, and it’s good practice for the crappy boss no one escapes having at least once in their careers.

But there are also some teachers who are genuinely damaging.

They’re not stupid, though. Teachers who take their professional and personal frustrations out on the helpless kids under their control choose their victims carefully. They don’t pick on the ones whose parents are involved. They pick on kids who have nobody to protect their backs.

And that’s why I keep attending Parent-Teacher conferences. So teachers know they may be watching my kids – but I’m watching them. It’s the other side of accountability.

What do you think?

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