Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Yucky Parent Conference

I had a conference with the parents of one of my students today. Sometimes these conferences frustrate me; this was one of those times.

The student tries hard and does almost all assignments, and even does ok on quizzes. On tests, however, this student bombs. Miserably. It's not even close.

The parents asked what they should do, what they could do, to ensure the student performs better. I know it's a natural question for a parent to ask, but it's a weird question for a teacher to be asked.

If I knew how to get the child to do better, I'd already be doing it and the child would be getting an A.

That's not to say that there's nothing else I can do, far from it. Whenever students have difficulty learning something I take different tacks to see if an alternate method works. But I don't know beforehand if any given method will work on any given student or group of students. Again, if I knew that, I'd already be using the "model approach" and I'd be superteacher and my students would be every teacher's dream.

So I had to give some canned answers to the parents, slightly modified for their child's specific weaknesses. Honestly, if I had the silver bullet I'd already have used it.

Then came the, well--I'm not sure what to call it. These parents weren't so angry as to attack, but they were reaching for anything they could their hands on to get me to change their child's grade. "My child says that you test stuff that you don't cover in class." That isn't accurate. "Well, a lot of teachers at this school do." I think to myself, your child's had six, maybe as many as seven teachers at this school, well under 10%; you can't know what "a lot" of teachers do. "My child does all the homework. In my book that means at least a D." Grades have to reflect a level of mastery of the material covered, which is why 80% of a student's grade comes from tests and weekly quizzes. "I wasn't very good at math, either." Please don't tell your student that; in their mind it excuses their poor grade. And again, "Are you sure you're testing the material you're covering in class?" Here's the review packet I'm handing out tomorrow and here's next week's test; note the similarity in the tasks required on the two documents. "My child has test anxiety." To myself I think, I sure hope you're not feeding that.

I recommended that they ensure their child starts reviewing the chapter today in preparation for next week's test, not wait until the night before. I said that their child needed to take some responsibility for learning by asking questions during class about unfamiliar material in the assignments. I recommended more frequent contact between us adults so they can monitor their child's progress. They decided to increase the outside tutoring they're getting for their student to several hours a week, up from one hour. And of course, I'm always available before school and sometimes am available after school.

The meeting didn't end poorly, and it wasn't what I would consider contentious. But I felt like I was on the defensive the whole time because I couldn't give them what they wanted, which was some single idea that would cause their child to do well on tests.

I'm soliciting comments here. What was wrong with this conference? How could I have conducted it better? Or am I totally off base here, and it went seemingly fine?


EHT said...

You are not off base. Based on your post you handled yourself fine. I am basing my comment here on regular education students. Everybody including students, parents, and even some administrators want modifications of some type. Most of the time it's simply a need to justify doing enough to get by which is a habit our society is breeding like rabbits. What can you, the teacher, do to get the grades up? It's not up to us to get the grades up. It's the student's responsiblity. I admonished all three of my social studies classes today on this very subject. My contract states I teach. I teach the material in various ways to complement numerous learning abilities and styles. Students learn. That's their job. They have to meet us halfway or they won't learn. It sounds like your student and the parents might need to do a little more and not grasp for excuses.

Anonymous said...

Parents often take their child's grades personally as a reflection of their upbringing skills. Sometimes, they try to go to bat for their kids in one area to make up for their absense in another. Afterall, if they were completely on top of things, maybe their child would spend more time studying. I strongly agree that telling one's child that he/she is genetically predisposed to do poorly in one area of school or any part of life for that matter is asking for trouble. That's the philosophy my stepsiblings were imparted with and I believe it was a major contributing factor to why they each graduated in the bottom half of their class. I've never had a parent-teacher conference for obvious reasons, but considering most parents, it sounds pretty normal.

Darren said...

Thank you for the comments thus far.

It's not that the student isn't trying--the student has completed and turned in just about every assignment. The fact that the student gets passing grades on weekly quizzes tells me the student is capable at least of learning information in small, weekly chunks. I'm inclined to believe that the student either doesn't know how to study for a test covering a few weeks' worth of material, or can't "tie it all together", see the bigger picture, or something like that when there's *lots* of information to be learned and applied.

Darren said...

Hey, since I'm "reflecting" on this event and am seeking improvement, does this count towards my "critical pedagogy" points that I learned so much about whilst getting my teaching credential?


Anonymous said...

Keep in mind I'm still a teacher in training - with only 4 months of long-term substitute work under my belt (In a continuation HS, to boot!) and thus with virtually no parent-teacher experience.

Having thus forwarned you, this is my take on your post:

First off, it sounds like you covered all the necessary bases - both with the teaching and with the talking-to-parents.

My first reaction was: You're lucky! Parents who care enough about their children to *want* to do something to help! That's awesome! So many parents don't want to help - they would rather either ignore, or blame...

In regards to the testing/grading: The test/review comparison was a good start. I might also have - if it were available - shown the parents the class breakdown on the last test (names removed). A nice, bell-curve-shaped graph of test scores can do wonders for letting others know you have a reliable, valid test, and put to rest questions about the testing itself.

In terms of homework being equal to a D... The level of mastery part was good - I would have added on that, as a teacher committed to their child's eductaion, I could not in good conscience set their child up for future failure by passing them when they did not have a good enough grasp of the material. Math is a subject that very much builds upon itself, and it is absolutely vital for the student to master the current level before going on. Otherwise, you're basically insuring that the student will fail later on down the road, generally in a catastrophic manner. This addition puts you on the parent's side, in wanting what is best for their child, and removes you from the opposition of wanting to 'hurt Jr. by giving them a failing grade.'

'Wasn't very good at math.' I find various versions of this statement often coming from students that I tutor in math. I like to redirect it by talking about how most math difficulties from from how they learned math (ie, teachers that didn't teach in their learning style / weren't good teachers / generic pitch that blames environment) instead of the difficulties are inherent in the student. A quick reference to how easy math was for them in elementary school often reinforces that 'I CAN do math' thought. To cement the idea that the student can then succeed, if they're willing to put in the effort, I talk about self-fufilling prophecies... and how if they start telling themselves they can do math, they will be able to do it. A similar spiel ought to work on the parents...

Test anxiety: I'd nod knowingly, commiserate, ask what the tutor is currently doing to help with that, and offer to give extra practice quizzes and tests after school to help the student overcome the anxiety. I would also talk about pre-test taking strategies, such as a SMALL piece of candy right before the test (small bits of sugar not only act as a positive reinforcement, but also help memory recall slightly), getting a good breakfast and getting a good night's sleep. These definitly won't hurt the student, and might help either as an actual or a placebo effect.

I can't think of anything else to nit-pick over, based on what you said... and in any case, it sounds like you did an awesome job! (I always tell my violin students - just because I can find something to nit-pick doesn't mean you didn't do a good job. In fact, the smaller the things I find to complain about, the better a job you did - because you did everything else perfectly!)

On a more general note - I love reading your blog! It's one of the first ones I check out each day, and I swear I've learned a ton about teaching already, just from what you write! Please keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Darren -- As a parent who has been in this boat when her son was struggling with middle school math and science I have two suggestions. First, the child needs a tutor, maybe another student (same class or older)who does understand the subject and knows how to study.

We found a wonderful high school student who could do this for my son. She helped him organize the material, quizzed him, reinforced good study habits, etc. He now holds his own in Algebra II and Chemistry. Next year as a junior he will take Physics and Geometry.

The second suggestion is have the child review nightly what was done in class that day. No, not homework, but go over what was covered that day. Maybe even re-write the work he did. Repetition helps with making the topic at hand stick.

Oh, a third suggestion - have the student spend some time after school with you or another math teacher (maybe you are doing this) to see if you can better understand the disconnect when it comes to tests.

Thanks and good luck to the student --


Anonymous said...

You have the right idea and the guily that you sense is entirely appropriate.

The reason you feel guilty is because the teaching (though not necessarily the teacher since much of what is taught is out of the teacher's control) in your classroom has failed this student, and most likely students like him. This is, of course, par for the course in America and most tachers don't give it a second thought or chose instead to assuage their conscience by blaming their failures on the children.

This stdent likely was a low performer who needed efficint expert instruction in order to succeed. He didn't get it and failed to leearn. So, who's fault was it? I'd say it was the school's. The parents weren't far off, they merely want their child to learn and beleve that good grades indicate that the child has learned.

If you're really interested in learning how to teach effectively I'd suggest heading over http://zigsite.com/, read everything Engelmann has written, and teach yourself all his proven techniques.

Darren said...

Ok, I've spent hours reading Engelmann's work--and I'm no closer now than I was when I asked the question. I don't see how his work helps in my situation. Can you be more specific, kderosa?

Anonymous said...

Zig's stuff can be pretty dense. Try The Components of Direct Instruction by Watkins and Slocum. Skim the examples first. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

. "I wasn't very good at math, either." Please don't tell your student that; in their mind it excuses their poor grade.

Yep, that's where it all started to go downhill for me, when my mother laid THAT one on me. Took me nearly 20 years to figure out it was BS. The notion needs to be excised from everyone's brains. Alas, even my husband did it recently with my stepson. It's an easy way around a problem I guess.

Darren said...

I'm a *big* proponent of direct instruction. I can't imagine that not doing enough direct instruction is the problem here. It's either the student's ability, the quality of the direct instruction, a lack of a good fit between the particular methodology and the student's learning ability, or some combination of the above.

As for the "I wasn't good at it either" comment, it's meant to convey sympathy and even empathy. It's just the opposite of helpful, though.

Dan Edwards said...

Hey, They DIDN'T tell you:

"You don't like our son"

"You are picking on our son"

"You don't like people of our son's ethnic heritage"

"All the other kids say you test them on material they didn't get a chance to learn"

"My son is too busy with (insert sport here) to study too often"

"Do you tell your students you are giving them a test?"

"Why isn't the principal here?"

"Why does he need to know this stuff???? I get by just fine without using any of this stupid Algebra or geometry!"

Sweriously though, you done well son!

Have a good one.

r said...

"This is, of course, par for the course in America and most tachers don't give it a second thought or chose instead to assuage their conscience by blaming their failures on the children."

Quite a generalization you've got there, don't you think?

How do you know about "most teachers" anyway?

And here's a question for you. How do I as a teacher, MAKE a student learn? Most students do learn. However, how do I MAKE a student do his or her work if he or she refuses? Call home? Check. Give extra time? Check. Assess the child's learning needs? Check. Call in a counselor? Tell the kid you care? Offer tutoring before and after school? Check, Check, and Check.

What do you suggest for a student who has made the decision to simply not do the work?

Am I still responsible for another human being's choices and actions (or non-action)?

Give me a break.

Darren said...

JHSTeacher, it took me a moment to determine that it wasn't *I* who had written what you quoted (it certainly didn't sound like me!) but another commenter. Had me rattled there for a moment!

Darren said...

JHS Teacher:

You weren't addressing your questions to me, but I'll take a stab at answering them.

There comes a time when you as a teacher have done about as much as you can do, then it's up to the school and then the district to try some interventions. Alternatives might be an isolated program on campus, or an "opportunity school", or a more individualized program designed to engage the hardcore student.

Sounds like you've done about as much as you can do. Now it needs to go up a level. And if they don't do anything--hate to say it, but that's not on you.

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

Darren, I'm not too sure I'd worry about reading Engelmann if his ideas are as good as kderosa's spelling ;-P.

I think you're on the right track about not knowing how to study for tests. It could be that the student crams like nuts the night before. That works for short-term material like quizzes, but he hasn't really committed the material to memory for tests, which require retention of material over a longer period of time.

Does the student just read the material over and over again?

I also like the tutoring idea.

And Polski's right-- at least you didn't get hammered with "you just don't like my kid." I got, "My kid just doesn't like you," from a parent a while back and instead of bursting into copious amounts of tears, which she seemed to expect, I just said, "Well, this doesn't have to be a romance, and he doesn't have to like me. He does need to do the work, though, and learn that he needs to learn how to get the job done with all kinds of people."

I mean, what the heck does that have to do with anything?

Darren said...

Ms. Cornelius: If you like the kid, they get A's. If you don't, they fail.



Onyx said...

Darren, Teachers hold the world guilt record. We truely want teach all students. I've had conferences like yours, and have another one this week. I am emailing the assignments home! I have a website via the school, I hae a makeup calendar in the classroom. Quit kicking yourself! If you had a magic wand you would use. Science may not be this kids forte. It isn't mine, but I learned enough. There is a reason I don't teach science or math, but reading and languge arts.

Another thought is that this kid maybe more of a linear thinker. Textbooks tend to be written in a more spatial fashion, idea, concept, back to the idea and another concept. Like a cirle with arms. II frequently have my students read the questions at the end of the section, or story, inorder for them to see what importatn information they need to be on the look out for. Then the concepts tend to fall ina more linear fashion and make better sense. Our speech and language pathologist taught me that one. It's quick and easy trick. Good luck.

I'm a Sacramento girl myself, but left for college and never came back.

KDeRosa said...

Quite a generalization you've got there, don't you think?

How do you know about "most teachers" anyway?

The generalization comes from NAEP data which shows that about 2/3 of children are failing academically year in and yeat out. "Most" teachers of these children aren't effective.

And here's a question for you. How do I as a teacher, MAKE a student learn?

By teaching him effectively. Teaching effectively entails starting instruction at the child's level and keeping instruction below the child's frustration level so he doesn't make a lot of errors. It is the errors that kill self esteem and motivation.

What do you suggest for a student who has made the decision to simply not do the work?

Some teacher made that decision for him long before by not teaching effectively.

jhsteacher, you've obviously never even questioned the possibility that you maybe aren't an effective teacher have you? That's just an impossibility, right?

I'm a *big* proponent of direct instruction. I can't imagine that not doing enough direct instruction is the
problem here.

direct instruction is not Direct Instruction. And, Direct Instruction requires mnay conditions be in effect in a classroom. Unless the conditions are in place, the instruction will fail.