By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
To my eighth grader’s disgust, I got a little teary at her parent-teacher conference last week.
It wasn’t that it was a bad conference. I cried because she’ll graduate from middle school this coming June, which means this was her very last parent-teacher conference ever.
But it wasn't only her last conference; it was mine as well. My children all attended the same K- 8 school, so when she graduates our family will leave the school after 12 years.
And that’s not all: it was the teacher’s last parent-teacher conference, too. She's retiring after 30 years of teaching. During the conference, she reminded us that she met my daughter for the first time when we were looking at the school for my oldest son, and my daughter was only a month old.
Who wouldn’t get a little teary?
Parenting reality check
Not all of the parent-teacher conferences I’ve attended have been so emotional, but I've learned something about my child at every one. So I was surprised when I conducted an informal poll in my office and learned that several of my colleagues elected not to go to their children’s conferences this spring. I’m not dissing my colleagues — they're all devoted parents who had good reasons for not going: the district now makes them optional, teachers said the kids are doing fine, they already spend a lot of time at their children’s schools.
They have good reasons — but I still think they’re missing out.
Because parent-teacher conferences provide a rare opportunity to see your child through the eyes of an adult who cares about him or her, but is more objective than you are. The teacher can give you insights into what your child is like when she’s not in the rarefied atmosphere of home: who are her friends? What's getting in the way of his learning? Is he chatty or shy? What subjects make her light up in class?
Boy to man
Over the years, parent-teacher conferences also provide a measure of how much your child has grown. They chart the trajectory of the girl who drew one portrait of herself in kindergarten — and a very different one seven years later (above).
My younger son was very shy, and during most of fourth through sixth grades, he wore a Russian army hat every day. The hat is hard to describe, it was a brown, woolen hood with a point at the top. His attachment to it, I think, expressed his ambivalence about the pose he wanted to strike in the world: on the one hand it provided cover; it also earned him a bit of notoriety since it was such an unusual sartorial choice.
During the Russian hat years, my son found parent-teacher conferences (and all the adult attention focused on him) nearly unbearable, and he'd slouch so low in his seat that all you could see was the top of his pointy hat. I confess that I was a little worried about how shy he was — and I wondered if he'd still be wearing the Russian army hat when he headed off to college. So the difference was striking during his parent-teacher conference at the end of eighth grade. By then, he’d ditched the hat for good and he towered over most of his teachers. He sat up in his chair throughout the meeting, joked with his teachers, and talked about his project on the Spanish Civil War.
Rite of passage
During my daughter’s recent conference, her science teacher reminded her that she barely spoke in class during her first few months of middle school. “I had no idea what was going on,” my daughter admitted sheepishly. During her first middle school conference, she mumbled and fidgeted whenever she was asked a question. She’s always been feisty and outspoken at home, and I couldn’t help wishing that she’d show that side of herself at school.
She was a very different girl at her conference last week. She told her teachers and me that she's looking forward to high school but intends to savor her last few months in eighth grade. Her teachers let her know, with different words and in different ways, that she’s ready for the transition to high school (which I know has been worrying her). “I have no doubts about you,” one told her. “You’re going to do great in high school, and you're going to love it."
In my experience as the parent of high school students, there's nothing resembling a parent-teacher conference after middle school. In high school, parents become a distant presence in their child’s school life. There are a handful of organized school events each year, but that's it. (Visiting high school isn’t that rewarding, anyway, because your child is likely to dart the other way when she sees you coming.)
Granted I’m in a nostalgic frame of mind but even in my impaired state, I want to give a big shout-out for parent-teacher conferences. Like so many things with parenting that you might take for granted or even grumble about, once they're behind you, you'll wish you’d savored them just a little bit more.Follow @CMMatthiessen