Thursday, March 13, 2008

Parent Teacher Conferences

I am the least intimidating person I know. My daily costume of choice is jeans, t-shirts, sweatshirts, tennis shoes, really simple jewelry and next to no make-up, if at all. I'm also friendly by nature--chatty, positive, inclined to see myself as knowing less than the person I'm talking to--unless it's writing or dog training and then I'm only just confident and not much more.So on the rare occasion that I intimidate someone, it's something of a shock to me. I am so not that kind of person.

As a homeschooler, with one kid in public high school, I'm still pretty new at this parent-teacher relationship. But I don't hesitate to ask questions concerning my son's education, especially if his grade in a particular subject is lower than I think he's capable of. Just the fact that I ask these questions seems to rattle some of them and I can tell they think I'm blaming them. In truth, it's very rare that I blame the teacher. I tend to assume Jeremiah has missed something important.

Only twice have I spoken with teachers who's judgement I questioned. And only one time did I voice it and I was very nice the whole time. Jeremiah has been taking engineering and design classes for three years now. He loves these and they've taught him more about science and technology than any book could. But when he was a freshman, I met with the instructor to ask him some questions about why Jeremiah was pulling Cs in his class (he had As and Bs in all his others). What was he missing? How could we help? That kind of thing.

My husband and I sat across the table as he teacher explained how his classes worked. The kids had to build things like cranes that could lift a certain amount of weight. Each of the kids was given the same materials and instructions. Jeremiah, he said, had gotten a C on his, as had several other kids in the class.

Why? I asked. Was his work sloppy? Did he not follow directions? (By this point in the semester, Jeremiah had brought home a couple of his projects and we trusted him for minor household repairs so I doubted it, but I was willing to believe that maybe he was fooling around in class with his friends instead of paying attention).

No, no, he'd followed directions and his crane looked fine.

He paused.

It's when he tested it.

Tested it?

I grade them according to how much weight they can hold before breaking. So the kid who's crane holds the most gets an A.

Even if the work is sloppy and he didn't follow directions?

Uhh. Yeah.

So his grade is based on a competition,

No, no, not a competition. It's just about how much weight it can hold.

My husband, caught up in the whole idea, was enthusiastically nodding his head. He agreed with the teacher. It wasn't a competition. It was about how well each kid's crane worked. He got it, he understood.

The perverse part of me pressed on. I think it was the two men sitting there cavalierly throwing away my kid's GPA that did it to me. And since his crane didn't hold as much as some other kids in the class, he got a C.

Right. He and my husband exchanged "just a dumb girl" looks and it annoyed me, but I thought just maybe I was missing something and that I was being unfair.

Tell me about the other assignments.

Well there was the car they had to build.

I'd seen that project. It was actually pretty inventive. CDs for tires, a small motor and mishmash of materials--very well made. He demonstrated it on the kitchen floor for us. He got a C on that too?

He checked his grade sheets. Yeah. The man began to look a little strange, like he'd just awakened from a sound sleep to find himself teetering on a balance beam and he wasn't at all sure how he'd gotten there or what to do about it.


Well there was this race . . .

My husband was practically bouncing up and down in his seat. Oooh coool! I'll bet that was fun! I knew this was bringing back great boy scout troop experiences. But my kid's grade wasn't a merit badge.

So he got a C because his car didn't come in first? Even though he did a really good job on it?

My husband stopped bouncing at that point. He was clearly hoping the teacher could save it, because racing little hand built cars for grades was just such a great idea. But I could tell he'd finally caught wind of the trend I was seeing.

Umm. That's right. The teacher suddenly found his papers far more interesting than us.

I felt really bad for him. He wasn't nervous when we walked up, but he was when we stood to leave. I assured him that Jeremiah really liked his class and that he seemed to be learning a lot from him. But it didn't change the man's demeanor. He smiled a small, tight smile. I had clearly rained on his parade of little cars and cranes and airplane races and I really didn't mean to. Though I was bothered by it, I had no intention of asking him to change how he ran his classroom.

A couple of days later, Jeremiah came home and announced that the teacher had discontinued grading his students on the "competitions", but that he would give extra points to the kids whose projects did the best. Jeremiah still loves the class and has learned a great deal about engineering and electronics.

But to this day, when that poor man passes me in the hall, he won't look at me. And when I see him on Parent-teacher conference day, he makes a point of disappearing before I get to his table. And I still feel bad about it.

But only sort of.


Scotty said...

I'm not convinced that you have any reason to feel bad about that, Mary (even sort of).

It's been my experience that the best way to get past being wrong is to fess up to it when it happens; people tend to have respect for someone who can display that basic level of humility and it then negates the need for the person who was wrong to walk around with their head hanging low, avoiding eye contact, etc - it's more liberating than embarrassing, really, and it's a pity that more people can't realise that.

Mike said...

Ha! That's a great story, another confirmation that the sports metaphor is the lens through which Americans tend to see all of life.

BTW, we are homeschoolers also, with kids who went to the local college for their high school years.

Congrats on your son- He sounds sharp!

Dennis Bryant said...

As the spouse of a school teacher, I'm surprised at the reaction to your interest. Her frustration is parents who have no interest in their kid's education, and get annoyed if she tries to bring a problem to their attention.

As an engineer, those types of assignments are very typical of what he will encounter in college. Some instructors will zero in on inovation/execution. Others will zero in on performance/competition. Either is valid depending on the teaching point they are trying to make. The difference is that the instructor will make the evaluation critera clear BEFORE the student begins work. Your teacher gets a C -- challenging assignment, poor definition of expectations.

Mary Paddock said...

Hi Scotty. Thanks. Like I've said before--I didn't set out to make the man uncomfortable. All I wanted was answers.

Mike: My oldest is very bright. That's often half his problem (why is it, the smarter they are, the less we know?). Using your community college during high school is a great idea and, I confess, not one I'd considered.

Dennis: Thank you for clarifying
that. I'd wondered if what he did was the norm or not. It would have helped a lot if he'd explained that to me.

Honestly, I think it would really help the teachers out if the school would send a course description home with the kids before the kids sign up for the classes. We get a list of behavioral expectations and a contract to sign as well as a list of supplies, after they've begun classes. But I have no way of knowing what he's getting himself into ahead of time. He and his advisor make all the decisions and we're left out of the loop for the most part. It comes across like they only want our signature of approval on what they've already decided is best for my kid.

As for parental interest--At our first "open house" on his freshman year, I was dismayed to see how very few parents had shown up and of the handful of us who did, my hand was in the air the most, asking the most questions. This was to be expected as it was my first experience with public school. Joseph, the next Paddock boy to go to public high school, won't have to sit silently next to a woman he would like to pretend he doesn't know. :)

Since then, I've gotten a range of responses to my questions. Some are gracious, friendly, and happy that I care (one actually made a big deal out of it). Some honestly give the impression that they wish I'd just stay out of things and let them teach. Their attitude is tense, like they're just waiting for me to complain when all I want is information so I can help.