The Enduring Relevance of Conferences
On Thursday and Friday of last week, Ridgeview hosted its thirty-third parent-teacher conference. Much has changed over the last seventeen years in terms of how parents and teachers communicate with one another, but the importance of them doing so has not diminished.
In the beginning, a telephone call was more common than an e-mail. Staff worked feverishly to print out reports, fold letters, lick envelopes and stamps, and mail them out by the hundreds. Parents were told that they must attend conferences, and if they declined to do so, they promptly received a form letter admonishing them for their negligence.
In an age in which everyone is practically instantaneously accessible via e-mail, and in which student’s grades and homework along with virtually everything else about their school lives is available to parents online, it is curious that conferences, for all of their obvious inefficiencies, should remain of interest to parents. Given the depersonalization of most facets of customer care in nearly every other industry, it is interesting that parents, with access to so much information online, will still travel to the school to talk directly with their children’s teachers. Is this another aspect of Ridgeview life that is delightfully anachronistic, or has it merely survived the end of its relevance?
I would contend that it is the former; that is, conferences still accomplish several things that all the other information more impersonally delivered cannot. First, instantaneousness has several drawbacks. With conferences, faculty have over eight weeks with their students before they are obliged to come to a verdict. Within this span of time, they gain a fuller appreciation for their students. Students can, and often do, succeed and become complacent; or conversely, struggle and then succeed. The faculty too are permitted a period of time in which to develop, amend, recant, and redevelop their judgments about a student. And, however short a time in which they might be able to appraise a student’s intellectual and academic ability, an appraisal of their character takes longer, which brings us to the second advantage of conferences.
Conferences permit us an opportunity to tell what the online grade book cannot. “Johnny is doing well, but he’s distracted by his girlfriend in class,” or, “Anthony seems very sad whenever we read stories,” or, “Bethany looks exhausted in class.” These are not comments likely to have been made via the grade book, and they may only arise incidentally in a meeting. They may not have warranted an e-mail to the parents, but they may mean a great deal in combination with other information uniquely within the parent’s possession, and this brings me to my third point.
Conferences permit parents to tell us what they are seeing from their child, and there is no website that can do this for the faculty. Our students are your children. We each have an interest in them, but we see different aspects of their lives. We want to work in cooperation with one another, but in order to coordinate, information cannot all flow in only one direction. Within reason, we need a measure of background that only you can provide.
Finally, we get to know a student better by knowing something of their family situation. Usually, parents abide by the character pillars they have signed off on as a sort of baseline. More often, they go well beyond this minimum and honor the faculty in a multitude of ways. Periodically, we see eruptions of incivility, which is a kind of awkward insight and explanation all its own. When we see a child behave cruelly, manipulatively, petulantly, snobbishly, insincerely, or insouciantly, it is beyond cliché to see those same qualities exhibited with greater refinement, less nuance, and fewer inhibitions by the parent. It is fortunate that of the over five hundred families enrolled at the school, we see perhaps ten or fifteen ever behave in such a fashion in any given year. That is around three percent of our families, and while such events leave indelible marks on the lives of the staff and faculty, the vast majority arrive and participate in this enterprise with warmth, decency, and a healthy regard for not only their child, but for those who are endeavoring to help their child.
If you were one of the hundreds of families who attended conferences this past week, we hope that you found them to be altogether useful in the ways described above. We look forward to continuing our work together, and we hope that you will continue to intertwine your lives with the life of our school.