Conference Fail

Our students cannot afford to have their caretakers and teachers on opposite sides.

For many schools, October is parent-teacher conference time. Some teachers look at this time as a check against a child's behavior, as in "Just wait until I tell your parents about ..." However, during my years as a teacher, I viewed this time as an opportunity to build bridges towards families, establishing a mutual relationship to benefit the student.

If I were being honest though, I didn't always have this frame of mind. For the first five years of my career, I used the conferences to try to handle classroom behavioral issues by getting the parents to intervene. And if the students didn't change after conferences, it was clearly the parents' fault. My attitude was, "If the parents aren't going to help, there isn't much I can do."

One such parent conference, in my fourth year of teaching, illustrated my ignorance and naiveté and would prove a monumental learning opportunity for me ... although I didn't see it that way at the time.

Jay, a fourth-grade African-American student, was struggling in my class. His behavior disrupted my lessons, he frequently got into trouble at recess and he rarely turned in homework. The usual systems that worked for most of my students were ineffective with him. When conference time came, I was ready to inform his parents with a litany of Jay's woes.

When I started to arrange for the conference, I learned Jay was living with his grandparents. Both of Jay's parents were out of the picture for reasons I never knew or bothered to find out. That it took me seven weeks to learn about his grandparents raising him was telling of how little I knew about this student.

When it came time for parent-teacher conferences, my agenda was to discuss Jay's academic failings. His grandparents wanted to inform me, his white male teacher, about the struggles black males suffer in our society—and in school—and the moral imperative that he receive the best education possible. Their information fell on my deaf ears as I verbally batted away this talk about race by continuing to detail Jay's failings in class. They were silenced and silent as I insisted they adopt my white understanding of our school system. We all left the conference frustrated.

I was so blind to the dynamics in our conversation that I actually went to my white colleagues and complained to them that the grandparents didn't care about Jay's education and that the only issue they wanted to talk about was the fact that he was black. I cringe writing these words.

In reality, the failure of the conference was my responsibility and mine alone. His grandparents were guests in my classroom, and I dishonored them by not approaching them with a collaborative spirit. Most important, I failed to listen to them. By not listening, I created adversaries, not allies.

The end result was, throughout the year, his grandparents and I were on opposite sides and Jay in the middle. His education suffered as a result.

I can’t undo the harm I caused Jay and his education, but I can help keep it from happening to other students. Now, in my role as mentor to beginning teachers, I present and answer the question, "Knowing what you know now about this situation, how would you have acted differently?"

First, I would learn about Jay at the beginning of the year and work to establish a positive relationship with him. Then, I would seek to understand his life and the family dynamics that played an important role in it. I would reach out to his grandparents within the first couple of weeks, opening lines of communication. A positive phone call at the beginning of the year or a visit with the family works wonders. Finally, I would listen, listen, listen during the conference. If we were running out of time, I would schedule another meeting to continue our discussion and approach it with an open, learning and collaborative attitude.

Examining myself for my own biases, prejudices and racist attitudes has led me to change my approach over the years. I began to reach out to families thoughtfully and purposefully, especially those parents who were of a different race than mine. I began to see opportunities to work with them and, more important, to learn from them because they’re experts on their children.

As I work with my new teachers on their family-teacher conferences, it's always at the forefront of my mind to support them in avoiding the mistakes I made. The Jays in our classrooms simply cannot afford to have their caretakers and teachers on opposite sides. The responsibility for uniting them is mine—and yours.

Hiller is a mentor to first- and second-year teachers in Oregon and a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.