It’s Saturday morning and the snow is coming down heavily. I can’t go out today and I’m glad. This past week is one that I consider to be the hardest week of the school year. For three days, we teach all morning, have a quick lunch, and launch into an afternoon of one ten-minute parent meeting after another.
I used to be so nervous, even afraid, of these conferences in my first few years of teaching. What if a parent asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer? What if a parent challenged me about my teaching and I found out I was a terrible teacher? What if they knew I was a fraud, that I did not yet know how to diagram sentences, or the difference between a clause and a phrase?And there were just enough of those meetings to keep me afraid. Several of them stick out in my mind:
The Pointer: This mother held her arm out straight, her finger pointing at my face. “My son is not being challenged,” she bellowed, “and that is your responsibility as his English teacher.” I was struck dumb, near tears, when my blessed teammate spoke up: “I’m afraid we’re out of time, Mrs. Stinkfinger (names have been changed to avoid further finger-pointing),” she said firmly, standing up and walking to the door.
The Mother Of the Photo-Incident: Five months after school pictures had been handed out, this mother was still furious at me because, as I handed her son’s school picture to him, I mentioned, “Look at that smile!” I, of course, meant that he had a huge happy smile that I thought was wonderful, but it turned into what the mother called “The Photo-Incident.” Apparently I should have known that he had always been embarrassed by his smile, mortified even, and now I had ruined his seventh-grade year by pointing it out – IN FRONT OF THE WHOLE HOMEROOM! By the time January conferences came along and she mentioned it once again, I just nodded tiredly and kept quiet, counting the months until ENORMOUS-SMILE boy would be my student no more.
The “Will My Amazing Twins Be Placed in Advanced English Next Year?” incident: I taught eighth grade my very first year of teaching, and I swear, despite my Master’s Degree, despite being a nationally published author, avid reader and lover of words, I KNEW NOTHING. I had no guidance that first year, in teaching English anyway, and nobody had told me that we would be placing our students in the appropriate English and Math classes for their freshman years. I literally had no idea what the parents were talking about, and I was more embarrassed than when I folded the men’s underwear wrong at K-Mart in my first job as a teenager.
This past week wasn’t bad at all, for the most part. The parents were almost all kind and caring and grateful to our team, and our team of 5 worked together as though we’d been a team for years, even though we have a teacher who is brand new this year. (More about Kate soon – she is wonderful.) We started Wednesday at 11:30. At 11:45, the vice-principal came in, and sat to the side, note-pad in hand. Though she introduced herself to the parents, she was obviously doing official observations on some of us – me. The thing is, I was dressed as Superwoman… It had been wacky sock day and I just happened to have a brand-new pair of Superwoman socks. I decided to wear shirts that accentuated the socks, and then I remembered the red, sparkly cape in my dress-up bin and put that on, too. The kids loved it, and what made it really worthwhile was seeing a couple of always grumpy and glum kids trying to hide their smiles.
Back to the conferences – The VP is surreptitiously watching me and writing down every word I say to the mother across from me. I’ve learned to compile a written record for each student of his oral reading skills, his writing strengths and weaknesses, his behavior, and his participation, so I’m much more prepared and confident. Suddenly, though, the mother is telling us that they will be putting their ten-year-old Great Dane down in 45 minutes. She starts crying, and so do I. I can hardly stop. I’m heartbroken for her and her sweet daughter. Even after she leaves, I’m sitting there in my Superwoman cape with tears running down my face. The Vice Principal is still taking notes, and I can only imagine what she’s writing.
The rest of the conferences were uneventful – we gave our spiels and most parents left smiling. I love seeing my students’ faces reflected, sometimes almost mirrored, in their parents. I love understanding my students so much better after experiencing parents who are tense and rigid about grades (“Why is my daughter so anxious?”), or parents who are so full of love and pride for a son who struggles but always tries his best. I now understand the silence of a lovely girl after her father came in and literally bragged about himself for the entire ten minutes, never asking about his daughter’s accomplishments.
Next week will be a “normal” week, I hope. I’m looking forward to being with my students. We’re going to diagram prepositional phrases.