Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Meet the Creature

This is the affectionate term used by many of my colleagues to describe Parent/Teacher Interview night. I, personally, never used such a term, of course. First of all, it is too vague, leaving too much open for interpretation. For example, who, exactly, is the ‘creature’ in this encounter?

During the primary years, there is great interest on the part of most parents, in the academic and social progress of their offspring. Meetings with the teacher are highly anticipated and usually well-attended, for two reasons. First of all, the school is able to communicate reliably with the parents of its ‘clients’ by sending home invitations to attend, with the assurance that they will be received and read by the intended recipients. Secondly, all involved feel there is still hope.

By the time a student reaches high school, however, he/she has developed into a cautious editor of all homeward bound paperwork from report cards to permission forms, so it is a foregone conclusion that many parents will never find out what they are missing. Anyways, for many of them, all hope has been abandoned when adolescence set in, transforming their formerly eager-to-please children into hostile aliens, or, if they are really lucky, simply indifferent zombies.

So here you have a delightful encounter between adults who are supposed to care and adults who are paid to care about a young person who doesn’t care. Sounds like fun, no?

The Set-Up

Whoever invented Speed Dating must have once been a teacher. Ten minutes to establish significant rapport and convey important information and instill mutual interest and a wistful hope for the future, while offering some stale cookies and weak coffee, is a long established tradition at interview night at any high school. Parents rush around the school, from class to class, consulting maps, looking for the right rooms, worrying about being late for their next appointment, with much more haste and concern than is ever drummed up by their kids on any given school day.

Sometimes, a considerate administration will figure out that it is more convenient to herd everyone together in several large spaces, like the gym or library, than to abandon staff in their own classrooms, unsupervised, tempting fate. Teachers will be positioned at tables around the perimeter of the room, and parents will no longer have to rush back and forth from one end of the school to the other, depending on how many teachers they wish to see, of course. (This method also discourages personal and physical attacks from either side, since hardly anyone wants to lose it in a public arena with so many witnesses!)

What to Wear on Parents’ Night

Just like the aforementioned Speed Dating archetype, both parents and teachers are encouraged to ‘dress up’ for this occasion. First impressions are important, after all, so abandon the casual wear. Track suits are only really suitable for gym teachers, in spite of the advancements made by ‘weekend wear’ and yoga togs in recent years.

It says a lot about a mom, when she shows up in a hot-pink, spangled, velour athletic outfit with the word ‘Juicy’ emblazoned on her tush. What it doesn’t say is ‘ a real grown up in charge of young person with over-active hormones’. Dads who show up in business attire look impressive, but that illusion can be quickly shattered if you are unfamiliar with your son or daughter’s name.

As for teachers, dust the dandruff off your shoulders and chalk dust off your back or that is all anyone will remember about you. A little tooth-whitener never hurt anyone either, even if it isn’t on your dental plan (if you are lucky enough to even have one).

What Not to Say - Parents

You can be confident that whatever you say is wrong and will cause a great deal of disgusted eye rolling on the part of your child if it ever gets back to him/her. It isn’t really necessary to justify your child’s lack of progress with lurid stories of your messy divorces or emotional breakdowns. Yes, the school needs to know about relevant ‘issues’ in a timely and appropriate manner, but this is no time to go in for lengthy therapy or a heart-pounding confessional. And for everyone's sake, try to hold back the tears!

What Not to Say - Teachers

Don’t say anything that can be held against you in a court of law.

Gone are the good old days when parents were on your side and the kids were expected to make an effort. Rest assured that your every comment will be held up to scrutiny, examined for ulterior motives and summarily discarded, if not up to the usual standard of adoration and appreciation.

Immediately acknowledge that you are aware that in the vast scheme of things, you are privileged to have this brief encounter with genius and to engage with one of the most delightful children on the planet, perhaps to have some transient influence on him/her for the betterment of future civilizations.

Then you can go for the throat.

Parent Interview Styles

Parent Confrontational (PC)
The worst for first. Leave the litigation skills at work. You may be able to bully the clients and underlings at the office or even at home, but realize that men and women who, by choice, face over 30 teenagers per class, several times a day, are not going to be impressed by some adult’s self-important posturing and attempts at intimidation. The best result you can achieve for this kind of behavior is possibly some sympathy for your kid who has to deal with you on a daily basis.

This is the situation. You must make it abundantly clear that your child has special needs that are not being recognized, let alone met, that any missed work or inattention is due to family exigencies, like unavoidable extended vacations or social events, and that it takes a very special kind of teacher to reach this child who is, of course, a latent genius, fragile, unofficially ADD or simply, creative. So there!
Then quickly leave before there is time for rebuttal.

This is an approach which gains a great deal of empathy when finessed with the proper style. Hands must, at all times, be thrown up, and both eyes filled with tears of frustration, as you describe your futile attempts to get your son out of bed in the mornings, to do his homework or even communicate with you at all. We all know that your daughter holds you in total contempt; it’s a foregone conclusion. Since the teacher is very familiar with this behavior already, you can both commiserate for ten minutes, give each other a hug of appreciation, and leave each other in peace.

Easily Distracted
Park those cell phones. It doesn't reflect well on your parenting interest/skills if your iPhone keeps ringing during the interview. And you keep answering it! It explains a lot about your priorities and where your child falls on your list. Somewhere near the bottom, after 'pick up the dry cleaning'? No wonder you are here tonight.

My favorites are the parents who simply cannot believe that their child is doing well, is charming and communicative, co-operative and successful. They keep asking if you are both talking about the same person as the one over whose head they put a roof.

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