parent communication

Comments and Parent Teacher Conferences without grades

Recently progress reports were sent to parents. No grades. The purpose was to focus on what students have (or not) learned, provide evidence for the learning progress (or gaps) and identify the next steps for further growth.

Teachers invested a good amount of time in developing and writing their comments according to guidelines developed by our assessment committee. Everyone strived to ensure that the comments were individualized and informative in describing learning and suggestions for advancement. It was a piece of information that went beyond the data found in PowerSchool to which students and teachers have full access.

In fact, one progress report arrived at our home for our 13-year old son. For the first time I actually felt like a mailed report from school was communicating something worthwhile. The comments were informative, revealing strengths and suggestions for improvement that, if heeded,  will yield better learning practices for our developing student.

Shortly thereafter parents filed into my classroom one after the other for parent-teacher conferences. Most of them had the printed comments in front of them. All of our discussions centered on student progress and how to foster continued growth. Not once were grades mentioned. Not once. It was incredible. Parents handled a child’s poster, a piece of work completed exclusively in class. They perused formative assessments and other assignments that would never have appeared in a backpack or on a table at home. The work demonstrated how well students follow directions, pay attention to detail, and how much they invest in their work. My preparations included plans to veer discussions away from a focus on grades but this topic was not once broached. We had so many more important details to discuss in the precious ten minutes that we shared. The conversation was completely focused on each child’s learning progress and how he/she can become an even better student.

The value of comments-only reporting became even more apparent as discussions among teachers ensued following the conference evening. Others also experienced a similar experience of positive interactions focusing on student learning. Indeed, meaningful narrative is so much more productive than reviewing grades. 

Unsung Heroes: The Parents

The students stand proudly on the stage anticipating their turn at the microphone.  Typically it is the captain or co-captain of the team that speaks.  He/she offers thanks to the coach and highlights the season the coach and team has had together.  Then, bursting with pride and eagerness, they hand over the carefully handled coach’s gift.  But wait, where did that gift come from?  An unassuming parent has taken the time to collect money from the team members and has made the effort to pick out a gift.  No credit given for that effort. 

This evening I’m thinking about the unsung heroes of parents with school-age children.  At our last awards banquet I sat there enjoying the evening and watching the athletes from all the teams participating in this ritual of the coach’s gift.  Suddenly I felt a great appreciation for the parents who managed all those gifts.  Typically, it’s the same parents always ending up with the duty.  One of the parents had actually rounded up four coach’s gifts!  And, she works full time.  When I thanked her for her effort she responded with a smile on her face, “It’s my pleasure”.  And, she meant it. 

Parents are often called to duty, even well into secondary school.  Besides the travel, carpooling, and cheering on at sporting events, there is still the need to be aware of a child’s academic progress.  As students move from MS into HS and into IB level classes, the responsibility definitely shifts.  At the MS level, there are parents who check homework or sit with a child to ensure completion of or better quality of assignments.  In HS the support turns to more monitoring and reminding, except when supplies are needed for projects.  However, sometimes more involvement is required.  And many parents are there, steadily standing by their child, finding the best way to help that child succeed.

Some parents need to attend additional meetings with teachers, tutors, or entire learning support teams, often hearing messages that might be discouraging or might seem overwhelming.  However, they listen.  They offer input.  They share personal experiences.  They consider their options.  They participate in learning plans. They find ways to build their child and constructively help that child to improve learning behaviors.

As another year comes to a close, I applaud all you parents out there!  Thank you for caring!  Thank you for working on your child’s behalf.  Thank you for communicating. Thank you for checking my web site.  Thank you for checking PowerSchool.  Thank you for being there!  Thank you for all you do for your children and often for others as well.  

Assume good intentions of the teacher (and others), please.

As a preamble to this post, I want to be clear that the majority of parents that we interact with are positive, supportive, and grateful for the work we do.  Furthermore, such parents teach their children responsibility and ownership in their learning. They do not blame the teacher for their child’s performance.  They consult, guide, and encourage their children and work with the teachers in partnership to foster best learning practices and a pathway of growth for their children.  So, before I proceed, THANK YOU parents!  Regrettably, it just takes one "Negative Nancy" to put a real damper on a day.

One of my four science colleagues came to me this morning to discuss the Science Fair Deadlines that we have carefully considered since the beginning of the semester when we established a timeline.  We divided the blog-based project into smaller, more manageable tasks giving the students a reasonable timeline in which they can complete a quality project by the science fair date.  The school calendar and the athletic calendar were consulted as we assembled the outline that specifies all the due dates spanning the 6-week project time.   We planned for the entire secondary school to be on the same schedule so we can better support the group as the students work towards the goals.  Thus, some of the blog post deadlines fall on days when students don’t have science class or when students might be out of town.  We discussed the situation with the students (and it is noted in the description of the project) and assured them that they could always publish their blog post earlier than the due dates.  Additionally, we are giving as much class time as possible to aid the students in meeting deadlines.  We are available before and after school for additional support.

Apparently this colleague had received a mildly condescending email in the morning requesting alternate due dates.  Additionally, within the same email was a request to inform him when grades would be posted for two assignments that had been handed in.  REALLY? 

There stood the science teacher, leaning with exasperation against the frame of the doorway. Sadly, she has previously received very condescending emails from said parent, this relatively mild one “breaking the camel’s back” so to speak.   A mile-long agenda confronted her.  First of all, today was a major IB deadline date so the entire IB team has been consumed with ensuring that everything was complete for our graduating IB students.  In addition to finalizing lesson plans and lab preps, there are learning support and EAL student-needs to plan for, there are IMYC exit and entry points to arrange, parent meetings to manage, unit plans to upload onto Atlas Rubicon (with a looming deadline), field trips, faculty meetings, student questions, make-up exams, IB higher level time, emails.  Oh, and what about that stack of papers waiting to be graded?  As with all IB teachers, that stack piled up as this teacher graded internal assessments, filled out PSOWs, and made sure all documentation was properly prepared for shipping.    She looked at that stack of paper wistfully imagining being able to tackle it, however, there was this email.  She consulted with the science department and then located the principal to determine if there was a school policy on the topic, only to discover that, indeed, our plan for the project was in tact.   Unfortunately, her precious time was consumed with addressing this seemingly petty email.

Tonight I’m thinking of the fact that any of us can turn into a pessimist when faced with an individual with whom we might not agree or whom we simply don’t like.  Perhaps we’ve felt wronged by someone?  My father always used to say, “People are just doing the best they can with the knowledge that they have”.  He always advised that it’s best practice to simply assume the best intentions in people.

In a recent workshop I attended, the presenter, Dylan Wiliam, advised administrators to “Assume that your teachers are good and they are doing their best”.  He advised the administrators to invest in supporting teachers to become better.  He noted that there are almost no teachers that intentionally participate in practices that inhibit learning.  It seems this advice can be addressed to parents as well.

I plead with parents everywhere, when interacting with the teachers of your children, to realize that

  • The teacher has only the best of intentions
  • More likely than not, the teacher is good
  • The teacher is giving her best effort
  • A thousand considerations were taken into making decisions and creating deadlines.
  • The teacher has a big picture of his coursework, objectives, and projects.

Please realize that we have your child’s best interest at heart. We really do.  I definitely do not personally know a single teacher who ponders, “How can I make my students’ lives difficult today?”  We spend hours, and I mean HOURS planning and putting together lessons, projects that foster critical thinking and learning with accompanying rubrics to try to make things clear and defined for the students.  Yes, sometimes we fail.  And we know it.  We make it better for next time.  We reflect, reflect, and reflect again, always trying to improve.

We collaborate. We help each other to become better.  We care about our students.  My colleague questioned,  “Why would I want bad for their kid?  It is my job to do the best.”

All over the world people are doing their best with the knowledge that they have.  I personally am committing myself to assuming the best intentions in others no matter how they act or what they say. To begin with, I will assume that the aforementioned parent, in advocating for his daughter, does indeed, despite the style of his correspondence, respect the education, certification, and role of the teacher but that perhaps language or cultural differences are impeding communication.  In addition to assuming best intentions, I will also trust that I can have safe dialogues with others in order to promote progress.  Will you join me in this endeavor of establishing trusting interactions?

Caught in the Middle: A Teacher's Time

"That's not my problem" she exclaims as we watch the boys run down the basketball court.

I’m somewhat confused by what my friend and fellow parent means.  After shouting, “rebound” to our team, I try to argue my colleague’s case.  "Well, in her mind she doesn't feel she should have to look at or answer emails after her 'work day' late at night or on the weekends"

I am attending the game as a parent but often I end up fielding questions as a teacher, as is the case right now.  We clap and cheer some more as my friend continues, “Well, that’s a teacher’s job.  That’s what she signed up for."

I turn my eyes to the court to mask that fact that I'm stunned to realize during this staccato exchange that some parents expect teachers to be available 24/7, to respond to every email regardless of when it was sent.

 My colleague had approached me about this very situation earlier in the week.  She had told her students in class that she would postpone the test and allow them more time to prepare for the exam if they communicated this need to her.  She claims to have told the students they needed to decide that day.  Well, the next night a student wrote her at 9:30 p.m. asking for an extension.  She read the email the next morning only an hour before the scheduled test. She felt the request had been made unreasonably late.  She felt it wasn’t fair to postpone for this one student while the others sat the exam.  She also realized it would require writing a second test on short notice.  She was torn but in the end decided to not grant the student an extension.  Though I probably would have made a different decision, I understood her view. 

 As I listen to this parent’s plea during the basketball game, I also see her point.  However, I am a little "put out" at the expectation that teachers are expected to dedicate their entire lives to their jobs.  It’s one thing that we already do that by default.  We care about the students, we try to plan engaging and well thought out lessons, we seek fair assessment, and we want to be up-to-date.  As a result, we spend a ridiculous amount of non-work hours at our jobs.  I do so because I enjoy what I do and I sincerely care about the quality of education I deliver.  My income does not reflect my education level, the thought I give, nor the time I sacrifice. Suddenly, it feels different, even painful to think that what I do is expected.  I think if it is expected, then it should be compensated for.  Would this parent be willing to pay double the tuition for her child to attend the school?  In the States, would taxpayers be willing to pay higher taxes to have their teachers paid according to what they really give to the educational system?  Somehow, I think not.

 In any case, I’m glad that I have the clause clearly written on my website “I am happy to answer all of your questions.  Remember if you have a question, someone else might have a similar concern.  I will answer emails as quickly as possible, however it could take me up to 24 hours to respond, due to my duties.”  I feel like I should have the option of not checking my emails when I am involved with my family at home or attending to my personal needs and wants in the evenings and weekends.  It has been confirmed to me that for sure as teachers we have to be exceedingly clear in our communications and expectations.  We must leave no room for interpretation for students or parents.