Friday, March 15, 2013

Parent-teacher conferences, one last time

As usual, I was a little lost trying to find my daughter’s fifth grade classroom. This entire second-floor wing didn’t exist when I attended school here myself – in fact, the building that housed my fifth grade classroom is now the subject of townwide debate as to whether it should be preserved as a historical artifact or simply torn down – and I can never remember which stairwell leads to which part of the fifth grade area.

So the thought that this was probably the last time I’d have to try to find Holly’s classroom as I hurried to our parent-teacher conference was momentarily encouraging. Our school does conferences in December and March; this might be my last visit to the classroom all year, and if I do go back for some kind of end-of-year event, there will probably be lots of other parents I can follow.

But the relief of thinking I’d never again get lost on my way to a parent-teacher conference was fleeting, because right after it came the realization that it wasn’t just a matter of knowing other parts of the campus better than the fifth grade section. The reality was that this might have been my last parent-teacher conference ever, since middle school teachers typically don’t schedule conferences with parents.

It was yet another milestone moment, just one of many I seem to experience throughout every school year, but perhaps especially this year, with Tim about to graduate from eighth grade and Holly on her way to middle school. Parent-teacher conferences have been a semi-yearly event for me throughout the better part of the past decade. Could this really be the final one?

In those first few years of school, conferences seemed profoundly important. The chance to sit down alone with my child’s teacher and hear all about what he or she was doing – their strengths, their weaknesses, their interactions with peers, their typical attitude throughout the school day – was a source of fascination, an opportunity to spend twenty whole minutes learning about an objective adult’s impressions of my child. Conferences in kindergarten and first grade carried the same excitement as the kids’ first few infancy check-ups: the two-week visit, the four-week visit, the six-month visit. How much weight has he gained? What percentile? What new developmental milestones can we record?

Of course, whether it’s parent-teacher conferences or infant physicals, it’s fun when everything is going well. The fact that I enjoy these opportunities only underscores how fortunate I’ve been as a parent to have healthy babies who grew into smart, cooperative schoolchildren. My delight in getting to hear other adults’ impressions of them, whether medical or educational, is duly tempered by the awareness that it’s sheer luck of the draw that enables me to sit and beam over my child’s math scores or latest attempts at haiku while another parent is poring over troublesome x-rays or proof of inability to read. There’s no reason I get the fun meetings while another parent gets the other kind. It’s just another thing to be both mystified by and grateful for in equal measure.

Now, though, enough years have gone by that parent-teacher conferences aren’t quite as exciting as they once were. I still love to talk with Holly’s teachers, and I still find it flattering when they compliment her, but a part of me realizes by now that no parent-teacher conference can possibly give a parent everything she wants. No teacher can promise that good test scores in fifth grade assure top marks in middle school. Or that a ready willingness to play with the new kid at recess means she’ll never get caught up in bullying behaviors in the lunchroom. Or even that one teacher’s overall enthusiasm about my child means that she’ll always be well-liked and treated so kindly.

Maybe I’ll miss these meetings when the next parent-teacher conference day rolls around and I realize my family has aged out, or maybe I’ll feel like we have enough perspective on our children as parents not to need the feedback from professionals that once seemed so valuable. Tim starts high school in six months, and from what I understand, we’ll know a lot less about what’s going on at school in general after that. It will be his world, not ours, and no one will feel obligated to report back to us, other than through that most linear of metrics, report cards.

I hope I’m ready for that change. Their school has treated them wonderfully, and I’ve enjoyed every opportunity I’ve had over the years to sit down with their teachers. But it’s time to move on now: for them, and for me as well. They need to learn that success means trying hard even long past the point where anyone hands you a report card. And I need to learn that being proud of your children doesn’t require a scheduled meeting to review their performance as much as it just means observing, appreciating, and celebrating.

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