Ghosts at Parent-Teacher Conferences

Last night in my class on community and family engagement we discussed the "ghosts" that attend parent-teacher conferences. The idea, which comes from Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's The Essential Conversation, describes the way that parents and teachers bring their own prior experiences and traumas into their interactions.

One story that struck me was about an African-American father who grew up in Detroit, Michigan, but whose son now attends an affluent private school in Seattle. Paul, the father, shares his experience of the humiliation and anger he felt in the sixth-grade when his teacher told his parents he was at a fourth-grade level in math, even though this was not true. He eventually has a chance to show off his skills, and when his teacher reacts with surprise, saying, "Paul has never, ever done these problems before in this classroom," his father replied, "Well, you never challenged him." As he recounts this story, Paul realizes the way it has affected his relationship with his son's teacher, who he feels also doesn't push him hard enough in math.

This story was powerful in its own right, but it reminded me of an experience in my second year of teaching. I was rarely challenged during parent-teacher conferences, but in one case, my student's aunt was very upset about the reading responses I was asking her niece to complete. She didn't feel like the one paragraph summaries her niece was doing were at a high enough level. She showed me the reading response worksheet her own daughter did as evidence.

While I felt defensive in general, and also believed that one paragraph summaries were more authentic and rigorous than answering questions on a worksheet, I realize I was missing a major part of the interaction. How much of this aunt's frustration came from a place of her own experiences in school? Who were her teachers and did they push her enough? In what ways was I letting her niece slip by with subpar work, and repeating the injustice done to her upon the next generation?

In this context, the frustration and passion she communicated were more than understandable, they were restrained. Parent-teacher interactions are challenging for so many reasons. All human relationships come with challenges of communication and perspective. When you recognize the "ghosts" of teachers and parents, you start to see there's a whole new level of complexity right below the surface.


Popular Posts