With so much talk today about the importance of mindsets in education, one of the best ways to prepare for a successful parent/teacher conference is for the teacher to enter into those meetings with a positive attitude about how much responsibility each parent bears for the actions and accomplishments of their child. Through decades of experience, I’ve learned that teacher’s pets and teacher’s pests are formed from multiple factors and that the apple sometimes falls quite far from the tree.
Many teachers leap to blame parents for the antics, apathy, and academic shortcomings of their students—and I was one of them. However, I now have the advantage of a broad perspective because I worked at my first school for over 20 years. In that time, I frequently taught entire families, all the siblings and all the cousins, as well as much of the neighborhood.
Where once I gave certain parents full credit for the awesome achievements and model behavior of their child, there were times when I was forced to reconsider their parental prowess. When the younger siblings of these stellar students would come along years later, I couldn’t wait to have them in my class!
Yet sometimes these new students proved to be the antithesis of their prized older sibling who came before. I would privately wonder: What happened? Where did this little terror come from? You see, I had assumed that great parents always produced great kids.
Likewise, I have had too many nightmare students whose younger siblings I later greeted with dread because I figured they would be carbon copies of their infamous older siblings and would be directly influenced by the same lousy parenting.
Yet very often these children ended up displaying none of their older sibling’s bad habits or academic deficiencies. Some were even remarkably spectacular! It seemed some kids either overcame their poor parental influence or else (could it be?) their parents were not nearly as ineffective and culpable as I had once presumed.
I now acknowledge how much concerted effort the job of nurturing and educating children really entails. Whether congratulations, compassion, or commiseration is in order for a teacher or a parent largely depends on the elusive alchemy that exists between an adult’s intention and a child’s cooperation. Because successfully rearing and teaching children is never a one-sided affair; those who truly see the big picture are never quick to judge any party, neither adult nor child, neither parent nor teacher.
I now know that parents are neither entirely to blame for the worst their children offer, nor can they take full credit for the best their children offer. Similarly, I know that teachers cannot be held solely accountable for every single student action or outcome—negative or positive.
Even in the best of circumstances, appropriately shepherding and setting free a child’s heart, hopes, mind, and manners can be daunting at times. Yet it can be done, all while replacing condemnation with confidence, confusion with clarity, and conflict with collaboration—and this mutual trust and effort holds true for students, parents, and teachers alike.
I encourage you to go into your next parent meeting embracing a mindset devoid of blame and with a focus on strategies and solutions that help every child move forward and realize their full potential.
This article was first published in Education Week Teacher in Larry Ferlazzo’s Classroom Q & A under the title “Don’t Treat Parent-Teacher Conferences like Trips to the Dentist.”
For more on attending to the whole child and how teachers and parents can be allies in education, read Robert Ward’s Talented Teachers, Empowered Parents, Successful Students.
Also, read the book by Robert Ward recommended by the American Library Association, A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents.