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Teacher Conference Season

October 12, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

My first mid-term conference as a teacher took place in the school's gymnasium. I sat at a table in the corner, feeling like a bit of a fraud. I'd been teaching for just over a month, and now had to speak as some sort of authority on how students were doing? I barely had a handle on how I was doing!

As I scanned the gym, I saw faces paled by anxious uncertainty, flushed with reports of good news, and clenched in sorrow, disappointment, or confusion. As my first “customers” approached, I felt my heart race...

Let me back up.

The term “parent-teacher” conference is too restrictive to really describe what happens at schools like mine. Sure, the teacher may meet with one or more parents, but they also meet with a parade of aunts, uncles, grandparents, or older siblings. Sometimes a train of younger siblings or cousins follow, towed along by the promise of a meal provided by the school.

Even the broader “family-teacher” conference doesn't go far enough, as the school's entire support staff turns out. Social workers, clinic staff, administrators, and paraprofessionals are all there, too. Some hold down their own tables, others do double duty as translators, and some circulate.

And of course there are the students themselves. More often than not, the student moves along with his or her family. This can prove an eerie Jekyll and Hyde moment when, for example, a normally rambunctious class clown is rendered quiet and passive by a dour family member.

OK, back to first-year me, standing to extend my first, nervous handshake. For obvious reasons of confidentiality, I can't tell you anything specific. I can tell you that, after we got to talking, my initial anxiety wore off to be replaced with surprise at how seriously I was taken.

At times this was almost scary, especially when the despondent parent of a constantly misbehaving high school student asked me for advice, as the child often acted the same way at home. For crying out loud, a silent part of me screamed, I'm only 22! I'm closer to your child's age than I am to yours, and you think I've got any answers? That was when I first really figured out how important it is to support new families.

Let's be honest; if a child doesn't respect their family authority figures by 10th grade, their English teacher's advice at conferences isn't going to be the tipping point. This needs to be addressed much earlier, and with much more consistency than the haphazard connections of conferences. Most students' families didn't make it, and too often for high schoolers the conversations about difficult students revolved around what might crudely be called “damage control,” as there were too many years of chaos in the past and not enough years of structure in the future.

I do not say these things to cause despair. I say these things to illustrate how much deeper than the classroom our efforts to close the achievement gap must penetrate.

A superior teacher and a concerned family, with countless hours of coordinated effort, can get a difficult student turned around, and every student has a capacity within to learn and to perform at high levels. The older the student is, however, the harder this is to do; there's more work needed and less time to do it.

The sheer number of students in this situation by high school—especially when concentrated in high-needs schools—renders the odds of enough superior teachers engaging enough concerned families vanishingly small. Even if the schools were filled to the brim with superior teachers, by high school there just aren't enough hours.

It's time to move past the idea that we can manufacture enough superteachers to close the achievement gap through movie-worthy displays of grit and willpower. Teacher quality is important, not just for closing the achievement gap but for creating a competitive modern school system, but it alone is not the answer.

We need to invest in our family support programs for early ages, and we need to dramatically increase the quantity of high-quality early childhood programs reaching into the earliest years of life. The achievement gap starts before students ever enter a classroom. The earlier we catch it, the more our students and teachers can focus on what's happening in the classroom rather than outside of it.

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  • Lynnell Mickelsen says:

    October 18, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Great post. I totally agree. Great teachers alone can’t turn kids’ lives. They are only one part of the equation—-an important part—but hardly the only one.

  • Barbara Lindeke says:

    October 18, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    I taught for 31 years at Anoka High School and totally agree with your analysis of what we need to do to begin to close the achievement gap.  I taught 11th graders, and as good as I and their other teachers were, the students were mostly set on their paths of success or failure by the time we saw them.  Help needs to come in those early years if its going to have much impact.  Thanks for your ideas.