When I was a kid, my father and mother took me to my first parent-teacher conference. I told them that students did not attend these meetings. “You’re going.” I don’t know why my parents wanted me there because I did not plan to participate in their conversation. But I knew it was a big deal when they dressed up as if they were going to church.
As we waited in the hall to see my teacher, I noticed that other parents were giving me that “What is he doing here?” look. I knew then that all the other fifth-graders would hear about this tomorrow and that I’d be heckled all day long.
The classroom door opened and there stood Ms. James (a first year teacher leading her first parent-conference). She was smiling. I gasped! This was the first time I had seen Ms. James really smile. My friend, Andy, told me that teachers were ordered not to smile until winter break.
Ms. James seemed as nervous as my parents. There they were—three grown-ups, six pairs of eyes looking at me—as I was told to sit in the chair next to Ms. James’ desk, facing my parents. Their looks suggested (maybe demanded) that I pay “attention.”
Ms. James kept smiling as if something very funny was going to happen. I failed to see the humor in having to attend this meeting, but Ms. James seemed to be conveying the message that I was going to benefit from it.
When we were settled in and ready to talk, I noticed that Ms. James glanced at a card on her desk that had printed in big bold letters: Smile and be pleasant.
She handed my parents my report card, smiling. My Father began to breathe heavily and I noticed beads of perspiration on his forehead. My Mother clutched her pocketbook and kept saying, “Not my son! Not my son!” Being as astute as one could be at that age, I immediately sensed that something was wrong. Ms. James turned to me and gave me a “not to worry look.”
The report card went back to Ms. James who said, “Edward could do much better if he tried.” My Father retorted, “We have heard that story for the last four years.” My Mother asked, “Why doesn’t he do well in school?” This question and the possibility that my Mother might cry seemed to fluster Ms. James. I caught her glancing at another card on her desk: Stress pupil’s strengths.
“You must understand,” she said hurriedly, “Edward has a few strong areas on which we can build.” My Father countered, “Obviously school work is not one of them.” Ignoring my Father’s remark, Ms. James noted that I got a good grade in physical education, that all I talked about was sports, but needed to do better in the academic subjects.
My Father agreed and asked Ms. James, ”How do you explain the fact that he is not doing well?” Ms. James didn’t answer the question right away realizing, I think, that there were few strengths to talk about. She immediately checked another card on her desk: Be frank about weaknesses.
I looked at the classroom clock to see how much time we had left. This topic could easily take up most of the conference. I heard Ms. James say that such failures were usually the result of heredity and/or environment, sometimes both. I’m not sure what she meant but my Mother quickly responded that our family tree was loaded with teachers.
Ms. James told my parents that I appeared to be a slow reader, inattentive, a procrastinator (I looked it up when I got home) with limited interests except, of course, in sports. At this point Ms. James noticed that my parents appeared speechless. I don’t know why. Ms. James hit a “home-run” with her description— that was ME! She decided to move on and quickly checked the next card on her desk: Discuss student’s social adjustment.
“Let’s look at the citizenship side of Edward’s report card,” she said. “As you can see Edward appears to be an introvert and his social skills need work.” Another “home- run” for Ms. James! She added, “As you can also see, most of the checkmarks are in the ‘Needs Improvement’ column.” She went on to explain to my parents (and I guess to me as well) that we must get along with everyone, that we do things in groups, that this is our class where everyone is expected to cooperate and help one another.
My Father: “How can Edward learn school subjects if he has to spend time trying to be cooperative?” Ms. James sensed that he didn’t expect an answer and checked the last card on her desk: End conference on a positive note.
Ms. James: “Edward has the potential. I hope all of us can work on that.” There was a long pause. I’m not sure that my parents agreed with her. I don’t think they understood how she came to that conclusion given the information on my report card.
But they had not seen Ms. James in the classroom. She may not smile, but my classmates and I would “swear” to her enthusiasm, her persistence, and her determination in not letting one of us “off the hook.” These days, I think they call it “responsibility.”
The conference ended. As we left the classroom, Ms. James gave me a “thumbs-up” and told my parents that she would keep them informed about my “progress.”
Walking back to our car, I started to worry about my immediate future. Evidently, my mother was worrying about the same thing, saying, “Edward, I just do not know what on earth you’ll turn out to be.”
When we got into the car I asked my Dad to turn on the Red Sox-Yankee game. All I heard were two big sighs. I wondered why.
EDWARD is the Director of the Character Education Resource Center, Department of Learning & Teaching, SOLES, University of San Diego.