Atmosphere at parent-teacher conferences has changed
"They always say the same thing: 'She's a joy to have in class,'" said Mick, an eighth-grade student at Phoenix Middle School, Delavan.
Most of us remember comments such as "has difficulty staying on task," "lots of ideas, but needs structure," and this classic from the height of the 1979 energy crisis: "If only we could convert Kathy's energy into oil, we could solve the energy crisis." (Names have been changed or omitted to protect the innocent.)
Parent-teacher conferences are still around, but the atmosphere has changed.
At last week's conferences at Phoenix, parents and kids circulated among different teacher stations set up in the library, cafeteria and assembly room.
Each teacher had his or her own table, and students joined the parents and teachers for conversations about math, language arts, science, family and consumer education and the rest of the academic line-up.
Grades are always one of the big concerns, said Terri Brown, family and consumer science teacher. All grades are reflected in the G.P.A., and the G.P.A. is important for entrance into groups such as the Junior National Honor Society.
"Parents also want to know that students are learning life skills," said Brown, who is in charge of teaching kids everything from how to balance their checkbooks to the math and science involved with cooking.
Even the physical education teachers met with parents.
What would a gym teacher tell a parent? Johnny's rope-climbing skills need work? Susie can't keep her eye on the ball?
Physical education teaches lifetime sports—and the character-building qualities needed to succeed in sports and in life, said Patti Enger, physical education teacher.
Those qualities include responsibility, team building, healthy competition, being a good sport, goal setting and, of course, playing well with others.
How would she explain to parents their child was a ball hog or one of those kids who uses his or her plastic hockey stick to leave permanent marks on other kids' thighs?
"We would have already had had that conversation," Enger said. "There wouldn't be any surprises—good or bad—at parent-teacher conferences."
In other words, conferences are one part of ongoing conversations with parents.
Those conversations begin during back-to-school nights before the beginning of the year and continue with emails, calls, newsletters and other communication.
The district also uses PowerSchool, an online system that allows parents and students to see assignment descriptions, bulletins, grades, attendance and personal issues from teachers.
"We're trying to get everyone on the same page," said Mark Weerts, Phoenix Middle School principal.
All involved hope that page will have an "A" at the top.
Building relationships brings parents back
At Darien Elementary School, attendance at parent-teacher conferences is "80 to 90 percent or more," Principal Kathy Maher said.
That's a reflection on the community—and on the work that Maher and her staff do to make parents feel welcome.
But as long as there have been parent-teacher conferences, there have been parents who don't come, even when teachers are willing to make special arrangements.
Mark Weerts, principal at Phoenix Middle School, Delavan, was a school psychologist for 12 years before moving into administration.
"For some parents, school was not a successful place for them," Weerts said.
If they struggled academically, weren't protected from bullies or had teachers who made them feel like failures, they don't want to return to school, even as adults.
"It's all about relationship building, trying to invite them back and give them a new view of school," Weerts said.
Many of the district's other schools hold "back-to-school nights" to reduce kids' anxieties about the upcoming school year.
It's also an opportunity for teachers to reach out to parents.
At Darien Elementary, parents are encouraged to sign up for conferences during the back-to-school event. Reminders in newsletters, emails and other forms of communication follow.
If parents can't make conferences, teachers try to set other times to meet with them.
Weerts said he tries to make conferences "as appealing as we can" to parents.
"We want them to come. We want them to know that they are an important part of their children's education," Weerts said.
For parents who do attend conferences, what's the best way to make the most of the experience?
Weerts, Maher and Phoenix Middle School teachers offered these tips:
-- Ask the teacher what resources are available to help your child succeed.
Perhaps after-school tutoring is available, or a particular website can help kids with math or science.
-- Spend time before the conference thinking about the concerns and questions you might have, and then write them down. When parents have several conferences to attend, it's easy to get distracted.
-- At Darien Elementary School, parents are given a booklet outlining the curriculum for the year. Ask about what your child will be studying. If you're engaged in the topic, your child will be more engaged.
-- Ask about both strengths and weaknesses.
-- Ask what you can do at home to help, and be open to new ideas.
-- If you can't make the conferences because of your work schedule, or because you don't have transportation, or for any other reason—let teachers know.
They are willing to work with you.