by Anita Biase
There are some things you just never forget, like the first conference with your first child's teacher. As a young mother and long before I even thought of going to college to become a teacher, I sat on the other side of the desk, hands clenched, waiting to hear the news. I had four children under the age of 6 and the oldest had just started kindergarten that year. As much as I adored my little tow-headed angel, I knew he was far from perfect. He whined a lot, refused to eat his vegetables and fought with his younger siblings. I sat there cringing watching the teacher's mouth move slowly; and felt mine open with surprise when she began extolling the virtues of her "star student" who was- you guessed it-my little boy! I think that was the moment when I stopped making blanket assumptions about children!
After the first conference or two each year, with my first three youngsters, the teacher would usually just call me politely and tell me all was well and there was no need to come in. I was always relieved and never failed to be grateful that my kids were doing well. I was working, going to college, etc. and seldom went to the school when my kids were young. There are a few times that stand out in my mind, however. On one occasion, I had phoned the teacher and asked if I might drop in to my daughter's third grade class to visit. I was rather shy about this and felt intimidated by teachers in general and this one in particular. I walked in the door, found a seat at the back of the room and sat down. All heads turned, but although the teacher was walking around the room, she did not speak to me or introduce me. Looking back I realized the teacher may have misunderstood, may have thought I just wanted to "observe." At the time, however, I just felt very awkward, self-conscious and out of place. I went over to my daughter's seat, murmured excuses and left after just a short time. I had never felt so uncomfortable in my life! I was very careful, however, not to relay this feeling to my little girl because she loved her teacher! I just never returned to visit that classroom.
Sometime later, when I was in student teaching (I was a late bloomer), my youngest child entered school. This is when my "experience" with teacher conferences escalated. All during elementary this child had one problem after another. ( I had to go to more conferences for him than for all the other kids combined!) I sat across the desk from one teacher after another and listened to a diatribe of complaints about my child. These desks were daunting in themselves; huge contraptions in which the instructor ensconced herself. It seemed clear that she was the "boss." The teacher would always try to think of something nice to say about Charlie first; then it would begin- I would sink lower in the chair with every moment. I'd would mutter something polite when she finally finished talking and slink out the door, holding the inevitable portfolio of my child's work like a guardian in front of me. I knew the teacher was telling the truth and was trying to help but I just didn't know what to do! I still had three other children, in various stages and spurts of growth, was a single parent like many parents, was trying to juggle, work, school and family life. It was just all too overwhelming, so I just blamed it all on the school and the teacher. Why, oh why, were they not "teaching" my child?
By the time the this youngest child was in Junior High, I was teaching myself. When I discussed his progress (or lack of it) with his teacher, there was a big difference! I looked across a table, not a desk; at a colleague, not a stranger, and sipped coffee as we discussed what she and I could do together to help Charlie improve his academic performance. Do you see the difference?
Why could it not have been that way in the first place?