Parent-Teacher Conferences

I have a love-hate relationship with parent-teacher conferences.  I’ve experienced some real nightmares when it comes to dealing with parents such as:  The parent coming in drunk.  The parent letting me know they will beat their child when they get home.  The parent turning the meeting into something else entirely.  The parent saying “well, I can certainly see why he likes biology class” while oogling me in the creepiest way imaginable.  And many more.  I imagine all teachers have similar horror stories and then some truly unique ones such as one of my teacher friends whose mother said “of course he likes your class, you’ve got BOOBIES!”  And then there’s my coworker who just had a parent sit down and tell her that she was throwing shit against the wall and expecting it to stick.  (This from someone who expected her be teaching college level chemistry in an introductory high school chemistry class and who also encouraged her to blow things up to get the attention of the students – which is NOT what chemistry is about but anyway…)

So, every year I gear up for the worst and brace myself for the onslaught of “Why can’t my student get an A in your class?”

And it’s not that it’s impossible to get an A in my classes.  It’s just that you have to do some seriously above average work to earn one.  It seems as though, as a whole, many people have forgotten that A does not stand for Average.  The grading scale says a C is an average grade.  That means a grade of B shows an above average grasp of concepts and an A is someone who is very accomplished in their work and understanding of the concepts.  And yet, for some reason, our parents have begun to demand A’s from their student’s teachers – nope… not from the students… but from the teachers.  Trust me, there is a LOT of pressure on teachers these days to not fail anyone – no matter the reason.

An example?  Our math department is experiencing a high number of D’s and F’s.  Most of the students with these grades have many missing homework assignments.  To say it again: Most of them are getting Ds and Fs because they are not doing the work.  When you don’t do the homework (which is practice) you typically don’t do well on the test.  (Students expecting to do well on the test despite the lack of practice is much like picking up a basketball and expecting to be offered a spot in the NBA.  Sure, it can happen, but for most people it takes thousands of hours of practice to get to that point.)  Anyway, instead of addressing the homework issue…. our principal told them to have the students complete one problem at the end of each class period and to give them points for doing so.  In case you missed it… the response was grade inflation.  Give them points for everything, that way if they DO fail the test… they have enough bogus grades in the grade book to make it so they won’t fail the class.

And honestly, it’s not as though the math teachers weren’t having the kids do sample problems in class.  It’s just that now the students get a grade for doing what is expected of them.  When I look through many of the teacher’s grades in my school I see a lot of “completion” grades which means the students get rewarded just for doing the work – not for the quality of work.  I see a lot of “on task” grades meaning the student is getting points for just going through the motions in an appropriate manner.   And, when I look at their tests I see multiple choice tests that are nothing more than examples of rote memorization.  And it isn’t  that these teachers are necessarily bad teachers who aren’t trying to actually teach their students… it’s just that they have succumbed to the pressure of A means average and grade inflation.  Neither of which are going to teach our youth to think and prosper in their adulthood.

It’s all very maddening for me.  As a science teacher, my goal is to teach my students to think and question and analyze and draw conclusions.  My students are resistant to each of these things because they aren’t being challenge to do so in other classes.  Their parents are resistant because their student isn’t getting an A in my class.  Sometimes I feel like the last hold out in education (which I know I am not).

And then parent-teacher conferences occurred this past week and I had two sets of amazing parents.  Naturally, both sets are college professors.  But both of those parents discussed with me their child’s learning this year.  They discussed the rigor of my classroom and thanked me for challenging their student to grow as a student and a learner.  And yes, both sets of parents said they see in their college freshmen students who are not able to do anything but memorize facts – they can’t do anything with the information, but they can spew definitions at them all day long.

It’s people like those parents who make me proud of the efforts I put in to challenge my students to think.  It’s parents like those who give me the strength to defend students who get As in all of their other classes getting a B or a C in mine.  However, I do feel the daily pressure of caving to A means average – I know my fellow teachers feel it.  If America wants good education for their children – they need to understand that not everyone will earn an A… or a B.  They need to understand that a C is a fine grade for most students.  All of the education reform in the world won’t help us if we insist on inflating grades and handing out As to students who don’t deserve them.

I’ll step down off my soapbox now.