The Terror of the Parent-Teacher Conference

Parent-teacher conferences can be jarring. Not because of supposed helicopter parents who want nothing more than to guarantee a successful future for their child. Not because of the families who are too busy working multiple jobs to come in. Parent-teacher conferences are frightening because of what they reveal how our culture views education and the purpose of schooling.

What are my child’s weaknesses?
What can he/she do better?
What does he/she need to practice more at home?
What can we do?

The last question, while perhaps not always explicitly mentioned, permeates the atmosphere of almost every parent-teacher conversation I’ve had. Fueled by legitimate class anxiety, families hurl themselves at teachers, feverish to extrapolate any piece of information that might benefit their children. The fear is palpable. How is his writing compared to his peers? Do you have any summer programs to recommend? I noticed she isn’t studying enough when she gets home; how can we remedy that?

And we are too eager to comply. We come equipped with gradebooks open and lexile charts at the ready. We measure and diagnose and prescribe and remediate. We dissect children, cutting them into hunks of meat to be weighed on the scales of achievement. Scales that are designed to validate and propagate a singular vision of achievement. This vision denigrates anything that does not conform to the logic of production and instrumentalism, the belief that education is concerned with nothing more than means and ends. Means and ends that we accept acritically.

I have children who are witty, generous, and kind. Kids who move quickly and kids who take five minutes just to take out a sheet of paper from their disheveled, overstuffed binders. Most of my students are in varying states of hormonal and neurochemical flux. They test boundaries, they try on new identities, and they struggle to develop a sense of values within a culture that either demonizes or fetishizes them. On any given day, getting most of them to read or write a few meaningful sentences is no small victory. Some are academically gifted. Most aren’t. And that’s okay. Because we all have different selves, different modes of existing in this world that cannot and should not be devalued by an ideology of technical knowledge.

This brief post is neither anti-parent nor anti-teacher. It is about trying to figure out why parent-teacher conferences feel like so much wasted potential. About why I leave conference day feeling cheated and hoodwinked by the ecology I’ve devoted the majority of my adult life to.

Discussions about quiz grades and late homework and how many zeroes a certain child has train our attention to only the most superficial aspects of a democratic education. The necessarily difficult conversations about why we’re doing what we’re doing in schools cannot occur under our current system. We should be able to meet and debate knowledge and purpose and what it means to exist within a community of others. I want to celebrate and value the ridiculously complex spectrum of human cognition, not willingly truncate what it means to be a dynamic living thing.




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