We had parent-teacher conferences this week. Every time we have these conferences, I learn so much more about our families. I learn about their strengths, their heartbreaks, their hopes. I am reminded of what parents all over the world have in common- our love for our children. With the help of our wonderful interpreters, they are able to tell us their stories. Here are a few from this conference night:
The Bravest Mother: She is a single mother. They came here as refugees. She works nights stocking shelves. Her son is an adorable, affectionate boy- generous with his hugs and his smiles. His speaking and listening skills in English are excellent but we're worried about his reading and writing. We first talk to her about how wonderful he is and what a great mother she must be. Then we talk to her gently about our concerns. She tells us to do whatever we think is right and to please, please help him. We ask some more questions about her family for a form we have to fill out. We discover she has a young daughter still living on another continent. She is working to be able to bring her here. She shows me pictures of the daughter and she is beautiful and looks just like her brother. I look at this mother and think she is one of the most courageous people I have ever met. I try to imagine myself in similar circumstances and I feel weak. Really, these refugees are the bravest, most resilient people I know. We assure her that her son has many strengths and we're going to figure this difficulty out. He's going to be fine, we tell her. She thanks us again and again.......
The Bouquet: This was the first time in my teaching career of 20 years that I have received a bouquet of flowers from a parent on conference night. It was a beautiful arrangement of deep red carnations. I gotta tell ya- I deserve it for this kid :) He is charming, so likeable, great speaking skills in English, funny, full of life, helpful, excited about things, and can entertain you with stories of his life all day. The downside is that he never shuts up, disrupts the class all the time, does very little classwork or homework, constantly tries to leave the room (drinks, bathroom, nurse, pencils, so cold he needs a sweater from his locker, on and on), and has a temper that has gotten him into some pretty big trouble already.
You always tell the parents the good news first and then you get into the stuff that needs improvement. Of course, she knows her son, and she already knows everything I am going to say. We laugh a lot and I think she is impressed with how well I know him, how many specific things I know about him. The thing is- he has improved in some areas-namely his temper. She tells me how much he like us teachers and that he doesn't want us to be mad at him. I tell her that I know this kid is going to be incredibly successful one day- He just needs to work on these things, find a little more discipline and focus (actually A LOT, but baby steps, right?) She tells me how much she appreciates our hard work with him and that we are really helping him.
Then I tell her about a conversation that a volunteer and I had with him one day not long ago. He was telling us that he wants to be a bodyguard for a profession- he has a family member who does this. Our volunteer pointed out to him that bodyguards need to be really quiet and serious a lot of the time and maybe he should consider something where he gets to talk a lot- like an executive, a salesman or a politician. I love this volunteer- I think she may have gotten him thinking......His mother laughs and laughs at this; she thinks it's hilarious.
When she left, she warmly shook my hand with both of her hands and kept saying thank you in her language over and over. Finally, she looked at me one last time, and said in English, "Thank you, teacher."
Bridging the Divide: As a teacher, you head into some conferences with a little bit of dread- maybe the child is difficult; maybe the parent is difficult; maybe you have bad news. Then there are others that you know are going to be a breeze. You look forward to them, because there is not one single difficult thing you need to say about their child. You are excited to tell them how great and amainzg their kid is.
This one was the latter. I got to tell her father these things about his daughter: She is sweet, kind, listens attentively, helps everyone,and has many friends because she is such a wonderful girl. I also got to tell him that she's making rapid academic progress; she works hard, does everything I ask her to and then some. She's a teacher's dream.
He listened to everything my colleague and I had to say quietly and intently, nodding, but not really smiling a lot. He was a pretty serious-looking guy and I wasn't really getting much information about what he was thinking or feeling from his non-verbals. Then he told us that he appreciated everything we said and now he wanted to make some comments to us. Then he paused for 2 seconds, but it felt like 10 minutes.
During this pause, I got a twinge of nervousness, wondering if he was upset about something. I knew they were a very religious, conservative family and it's possible something we said rubbed him the wrong way or he had an issue with something at the school. I kind of braced myself and glanced over at my colleague. She looked pretty serene so I tried to put a matching serene look on my face.
This is what he said, "I haven't called or come by to check on my daughter since we arrived, because when I met you teachers on her first day, I felt comfortable right away. I could tell that I could trust you and that you would take care of her." He went on to say a lot of other lovely things and asked us to continue keeping a close eye on her and watching over her.
I really felt like bursting into tears, because that is the most meaningful thing a teacher can hear from a parent. I kept it in check, though.
I'm sure that on paper there are more differences than similarities between this father and me. But it didn't matter on conference night. We sat at a table together and talked about something really important we had in common and both cared about deeply- his child. We bonded over her and there was an understanding created and what could have been a divide was a bridge..... a very solid bridge.