Last night was parent teacher night.  I love parent teacher night, but I don’t really love the format–basically, a million parents line up for ten seconds of my time. I feel somewhat like a cross between really, really rude, and a rock star.

We put out appointment sheets, but they never work for me, because they contain five-minute slots over the course of two hours, and I have 252 students this year.  That math just doesn’t hold up.  But, I do the best I can. I smile, thank them for coming, tell them I’ll be quick and that next year I’ll move the Keurig out in the hall with snacks. They smile and nobody yells at me to get moving. Many times the students come along, and often there are brothers and sisters who have been dragged out into the night to see me, too.  For them, I have a supply of crayons and my awesome fish tank to keep for entertainment and I say that I look forward to teaching them in seven years.

Holding parent conferences is a fine art–I’ve been on both sides of this aisle–the receiving end of conferences you know aren’t going to go well, and the facilitating end of thousands of conferences that I insist bring some modicum of joy to the adult who is seeing me at the end of a long day and who is entrusting me with their child.

But the students are always terrified. “What will she say?” That, I don’t mind, because it buys me at least two days of good behavior in advance. The quickest way to put the fear of God into a student who dares to brave the conference with their families is—to be really, really nice.

It starts out like this: The day before the conferences, I ask, “Hey, anyone coming to see me or am I going to be sitting here drinking coffee pondering the meaning of life by myself.”

A kid will approach, “I might come. What are you gonna say?”

“You know, the usual.” I say.

“What’s ‘the usual’?” usually the Student in Question has some inner conflict–did I do my homework? Did I fail to shut up in a timely manner? Did I forget my watch at home while meandering to her class? Do I come prepared? What will she SAY?

That’s the beauty. I never, ever say anything but nice things. No parent wants to drive from three towns away to see me for five minutes after working all day. They probably rushed home to have a quick dinner and collect kids–they don’t want to hear bad things. Parents hear bad things all the time. “Your son didn’t do his homework.” “Your daughter talks while I’m teaching.” “I think your child will be on the news someday, and it won’t be good.” You’ll never hear that from me. It’s not that I don’t express concerns–I do. I just find the greatness in each student and state it in caps with an exclamation point.

Sometimes, when a family member is clearly expecting to hear bad things I’ll come right out and speak to the question, “Listen, your son has amazing creativity–he organizes a little differently, but heck, so do I, and I’ve been successful in life. We all have our styles–I’ll help keep him on task.”

When I state things like that, I can see the hesitation leave their faces.  I see that years of negative meetings are opening up to the possibility that parent-teacher dialogue can be productive and positive.

Last night I said things like, “I can help you (student) to focus better, but honestly, your boss won’t fire your dad. He’ll fire you. It’s my job to prepare you so that doesn’t happen and you call the shots in your career. Can we achieve that goal?”

“Your daughter is respectful and has a great group of friends. You should be proud.”

“Your son hates school–let’s be honest. But that’s okay. [To student:] I daresay you’ve missed some skills–we’ll catch you up on the side, if you come at these times. No one will ever know.”

“Your daughter is very intelligent–she will always get A’s. But I don’t want her to get an A from me, I want her to imagine that scholarship in four years–I’d like her to work on college-level writing and research–we’re going to shoot for that goal instead. Here’s how…”

and the granddaddy of them all…

“Your son should consider performance. He is talented beyond measure.”  I know–where’d that come from? It’s something I’ve said only one other time in my entire career teaching. But when I see it, I have to acknowledge it.  “Consider researching the greats, reading about the greats, finding local people to mentor you, and starting small.  You should be very busy practicing and improving your craft if you’re serious.”  Basically, I sentenced that boy to four years of extra work if he does it right. Which I hope he does.

What does every adult want to hear at a parent-teacher conference? They want to hear that their student has potential. That their student is kind and respectful. That their student will not be stuck living at home playing video games them forever.  Families have different values–certain cultures value academics so much that I always include “always works hard in class.”  Others value respect above all.

“Well, your daughter has a 110% in all classes, and she found the cure for cancer yesterday,” I will say.

“Yes, but is she respectful?”

Parents want to know that their children have good friends. While I’ll never talk about someone else’s student with another family, I might say, “Your son is getting involved in school and making a lot of good friends–I hope you’re proud of him and that you have a chance to meet his friends.”  That puts families at ease.

Setting up those relationships is always, always important.  I wish I had tons of time to just sit and converse with families, and thank them for lending me their students for a year or in some cases more.  I now see families where I’ve had multiple members. I’m not old enough to start having children of students–when that happens, I’ll probably be that old hippie-looking teacher with the silver braid talking about how in my day MTV was just invented and we only had one pair of sneakers, and computers hadn’t been invented so we had to read books. And when we communicated with friends, we had to pass notes on paper–and we liked it.

Today, I’ll go to school and thank everyone for bringing their families–it’s an honor that they did, because I like to assume that people have much better things to do than traipsing out to see me for such a small time. And then I’ll laugh and say, “What did you think I was going to say? Did I scare you?”

They will laugh with uncertainty–always keep them guessing–it’s the key to performing, to teaching, and to life–and then we will have a great class.

[Note: Please see my board on Learnist about having a successful parent-teacher night. This should be a time we look forward to on both sides, never a time of dread. Hope it helps!]