Parent-Teacher Conferences – Cause for Celebration

I really enjoy parent-teacher conferences.  I see it as a wonderful opportunity to share perspectives on some very important individuals: my students; your child or children.

I sit down with parents for 5 to 10 minutes and it never ceases to amaze me what I can learn, what I can offer and how much connection parents and I can actually build-up. My field is Physical Education and while several parents of the children I teach sign up to see me and I also invite some, I only see a fraction of them during conferences.  Yet for that fraction I have bundles of information to share and my curiosity about each child we consider typcially rises as we talk.

Last year my colleague and I began sharing short video clips of kids in class with parents during conferences.  We use an app called “Coach’s Eye” and it allows us to capture footage of kids in action and also use it for instant feedback with students in class.  At conferences, the opportunity to show Marika in action or Luke taking it easy opens the doors for genuine conversation that often gets to the heart of the matter much more quickly than words or “the data” might allow.   A father and I talked about his son, who was clearly marching to the beat of his own drum on the video, and we both observed that while he seems both distracted and distracting in the example, his movements also convey a great deal of joy.  His son is happy and not following along. It’s easy to talk about what’s wrong with this picture.  I prefer to see and point out what’s right. It makes for a very different and often much more constructive conversation than if we did it the other way around.

Some parents have genuine concerns about their child’s gross motor performance and seem to arrive prepared for the worst. That’s when a short video clip can make all the difference in the world.  “Look at this!” I say, pulling up a recent success on the screen.  Then I listen. I hear about the difficulties in the past; previous negative experiences and prevalent fears. I learn about family histories and self-confessed physical inadequacies.  I hear reservations: “Well, we know he’ll never be a professional… (fill in the blank)”  And that’s when I cannot wait to say – “Well, we actually don’t know. She may become a pilates whiz or a deep sea diver!  We just don’t know… isn’t that great?”  This often produces a smile at the very least and a sigh of relief.  Progress is the goal and your child is well on her way – that’s my message and it matters to all concerned.

Other parents are eager to find out about their child’s specific strengths. Is s/he good at…?  What I have found over the years is that while I can comment on certain tendencies and and preferences, my main message to parents in response is: follow your child’s lead.  What interests does he show? What is it that she likes to do and with whom?  And I remind them that many children have hidden abilities and skills which often don’t show up at school: there are remarkable skiiers, disciplined martial artists, daring skaters or brave backpackers. There’s so much more to our students and our children than meets the eye and when looking at physical education performance, there is even more that we teachers and their peers will never witness. That seems important to recognize, especially when the dominant movement culture (soccer, basketball, more soccer..(in Europe)) tends to obscure that reality.

Looking back at the conversations I had with parents during this cycle, I realize that I spoke a lot about happiness, joy and progress.  Many of my students have challenges of one sort or another, yet they all seem to want to be in the gym.  They want a piece of the action and they get it.  Being in a position to communicate to parents: Yes, this “thing” [ – name the challenge] is going on and your child is happy.  That is cause for celebration. Again and again and again.

The Disconnect amid so much Connection

Just recently I willingly labeled myself a “lurker” in order to describe my social media engagement as an educator.  A lurker is someone who reads, follows, observes online conversations and postings and chooses not to publicly engage by producing output.  I adopted the term because I felt that it best captured my own approach to this (for me) relatively new realm of professional and personal learning. https://edifiedlistener.wordpress.com/2013/10/05/lurking-listening-and-proud-of-it/

Here’s the thing: As I read more and more posts concerning how to get more educators connected, the best way to initiate the uninitiated and essentially how to get more folks to jump on said bandwagon, I’m getting a little frustrated.  I think it’s the labeling we are using to frame the dialogue: connected vs. unconnected or semi-connected, initiated vs. uninitiated.  After reading these terms I have essentially asked myself: What’s the price of admission?  At what level of output do I get to call myself “connected”?  How many tweets until I become “a really useful educator”?  It seems to me that the purpose embedded in so many labels serves to determine exactly this.  If I make enough of my learning public through particular online forums (of which there are many, many), then I get to officially board the bandwagon and become its latest new ambassador.

While thinking (and getting all worked up) about this topic, I realized how much I long for a different tack in the conversation. As educators our most significant connection is, and remains, to our students. We connect through the care, concern, and respect we show each of our students every day.  We connect when we reach out to parents and communicate our hopes, expectations and desire for partnership in developing our young people.  We connect in the way we share and collaborate with our colleagues across the hall, upstairs, in the next grade level, or even on the other side of town.  We connect with our craft whenever we experiment with new ideas, take risks in our approaches and recognize our weak points.  When we co-opt a term as broad as “connected” to define a fairly narrow range of activities and behaviors, we do ourselves and our colleagues a disservice.  We create the “us and them” divide before we even can begin the conversation.

Tom Whitby argues in his latest post that

Connected educators may be the worst advocates for getting other educators to connect. Too often they are so enthusiastic at how, as well as how much they are learning through being connected, that they tend to overwhelm the uninitiated, inexperienced, and unconnected educator with a deluge of information that both intimidates and literally scares them to death. http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/patience-for-the-unconnected/

He may well be right. I appreciate his recognition that educators new to social media may be hard pressed to comprehend the fervor of some, yet I can’t help but chafe at the insinuation (in this post and others) that the “unconnected” among us represent so much lack in our whole education system. That may not be the intent yet I feel that sentiment come through again and again.

Come on, educators! We can do better than this! We can be enthusiastic about our turbo learning and wear our merit badges of connection and still remember that every time we divide ourselves, we lose more than we gain. Our “unconnected” colleague down the hall is still, first and foremost, our colleague with whom we share kids and a school community.  We need to always be in the business of supporting each other in striving to serve kids and doing our best with what we have. Let’s stay connected and let’s address the core of the topic: how do we help each other achieve our professional best?  Whether in person, on the phone, by e-mail, or online, let our connection, above all, be human, compassionate and genuine.