It was an endless week, with parent conferences after school each day. At my grade level, the parents receive a progress report with a conference request sheet, and they sign up to meet with whichever teachers they request. We are all available every day after school until about 6:30. It makes the days very long, especially for those who, like me, go to school very early each morning in order to be ready for the day. Wednesday felt like it should have been Friday, and by Friday my brain was working hard just to stay afloat!
Since this was my last time participating in these meetings, I particularly enjoyed seeing the parents whose older siblings I previously taught. I always love hearing how my alumni are doing and where they are in school; once they move on to high school I lose track of their yearly advancement. I have always maintained that no matter how old they get to be, my students are “my kids” forever, and I love the updates. I also enjoyed meeting the parents of some of the students who are the oldest in their families, and felt saddened knowing I would not have the chance to meet their younger siblings.
Getting to know parents, and winning their trust and confidence, has been an accomplishment for me. I am comfortable speaking to groups of adolescents every day. But since I am an introvert, I have a mental obstacle when it comes to approaching parents. I admit that an experience early in my teaching years, in a different school district, added trauma to my ability with this. Concerned about a student who was not turning in any work, I made a phone call that was answered by the student’s father (instead of the mother whom I found out later was on record as the primary contact); the father became angry about his son’s lack of progress, and that young man came to school the next day with noticeable, dark bruises. I had to file a report which was sent to the state and I felt as though I was the one who had beaten the boy, all because he didn’t do his homework. I have always known that it would be practically impossible for such an incident ever to happen again, but the horror affected me so deeply that it was beyond reasoning. I will feel awful about it forever, and I’ve been “gun shy” since then about initiating contact with parents over the phone.
But another result of that terrible experience has been an expanded appreciation for the many parents who are truly supportive of their kids, even when it’s hard. It can be tough to admit that one’s child did something wrong, or didn’t do something right, and the parents who can accept that and move forward without losing perspective are just great people. I am particularly thankful for the parents who understand and forgive me when I’m not perfect, and there have been times when I have needed to apologize to parents when a child has fallen through the cracks. I figure they likely forgive their own kids when they are not perfect, either.
I have always felt more loyalty to the student than to the parent, and I have made sure my classroom was a safe place for student writing to evolve. Students know that they can write about their anger, or disappointment, or love surrounding their complicated relationships with parents, and I won’t tell. I do make it very clear that I cannot keep secrets if there is any, even remote, possibility that I perceive anything unsafe; in those situations I am required by law to report it, just as I had to report the bruises I saw on my student’s face. Thankfully that has seldom happened, and while I am privy to some profound secrets, I also understand that these are seventh and eighth graders writing; their feelings change quickly, they feel everything more acutely and dramatically than they will when they grow up a bit, and I know that there are “three sides to every story,” (quote attributed to my wise police officer husband).
This week, while the actual parent conferences were smooth, I did collide with a secret that had to be reported. As I checked my email before school I discovered this message from a student: “Please don’t tell my mom I have a Facebook page.” I, of course, had not known that her page was undisclosed.
I actually have two Facebook pages: one as a teacher where I have student friends, and a separate personal page. My school district does not encourage teacher pages, but I have stepped forward with it because I believe we have to teach students about appropriate social networking — it’s actually in our technology curriculum — and so administrators have allowed it. Again, I have been clear both with administration and students: I’m not out to spy on kids, I really want to develop fun relationships on Facebook, but there are clear lines drawn in cases regarding both safety and bullying.
Well, I had to give this student request quite a bit of thought, and by the time I got to school I knew what I had to do. I first reported the incident to our assistant principal, and then I found the student, and spoke with her privately and kindly, explaining that because now I knew her parents were not guiding and advising her on Facebook, that it could potentially place her in unsafe territory, and so I had to tell.
This parent was one I have known for years; I had had the older brother in class, and was fond of him, so my conversation with the parent was friendly. After the discussion on academics ended, though, I had to reveal the secret. This kind of exchange can be exceedingly difficult for me, bringing up my old irrational fears, and so I was nervous, but the parent was . . . wonderful. She remained calm, and open, and asked great questions and we talked for quite awhile about how difficult relationships can be between parent and children of middle school age. She ultimately decided to work toward keeping the door open with her child, letting her maintain the Facebok page, but this time with supervision. Everyone wins.
I don’t think parenting — and parent conferences — can get any better than that.