Teacher conferences put parents on the hot seat

BY ELLIE S. GROSSMAN

As far as careers go, I never could be an elementary school teacher. I just don’t have the patience, nor do I have any desire to inspire on a daily basis an overheated classroom of nearly two dozen rambunctious children, many whom use their sleeves to wipe their runny noses. If I never do another mitzvah again, at least I can say that I have proudly dedicated many hours as a tireless Room Mom for the past decade and still counting.

Thank God for teachers, at least the good ones, because they stimulate thinking and motivate young people to learn. In Judaism, parents and teachers are one in the same, and education goes way beyond the classroom. When it comes to Jewish studies, the Torah is our textbook. In Deuteronomy, the sages tell us, “You shall teach them diligently unto your children … and speak of them when you sit in your home, when you walk by the way, in your lying down, and in your rising up.”

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This sounds like a lot of work on our part. I mean, think about all the lessons that Torah gives us about our religion, values, culture, language, and traditions handed down for thousands of years, not to mention a whole other world of midrash to explore underneath all that Hebrew text.

Sure, God gives us a lot of homework to study in a single lifetime, but it still doesn’t compare to the heavy workload and paperwork involved at a single parent-teacher conference. All kidding aside, teachers today are overworked and under-appreciated. And my guess is that one of the least favorite parts of their occupation, aside from disciplining troublemakers and occasionally eating blah cafeteria food, is the physical and mental preparation required at annual parent-teacher conferences.

But enough about the sufferings of a teacher. What about the moms and dads who are forced to squat on those little plastic chairs that have wads of bubble gum stuck to the bottom? Even though I approach each educational encounter with confidence and always walk away feeling proud, I still get a little tongue-tied when I come face to face with the person who spends more time with my child than I do some days. Even now, I dread when I stumble over the word “synonym,” which usually comes out of my mouth sounding like “cinnamon.”

Twice a year, I look forward to these 15-minute time slots with my child’s teacher because I usually get to scurry (somebody’s vocabulary word for the week) out of the house without doing the dishes. Still, I admit that I feel a tinge of nervousness when I discuss the genius qualities of my children with anyone outside of my own immediate family. After all, I take full credit for any satisfactory marks when it comes to grammar, punctuation, and correct pencil grip.

I always remember one of the first parent-teacher conferences that Scott and I attended because I learned a valuable lesson: Never underestimate the time you’ll spend at school that evening because at least one other mom will chat endlessly about the former twinkle in her eye. Even though this particularly significant meeting with Jack’s first-grade teacher happened five years ago, I remember our conversation like it was yesterday.

Scott and I patiently waited our turn in the hallway, along with the other fidgety parents who lined up against the wall as if we were in detention outside the principal’s office. Eventually, we all got bored and paced the corridors, twiddled our thumbs, and smacked our Trident until another name was called. Once in a while, a mom would have a meltdown because she was afraid that her six-year-old son wasn’t reading fast enough and would be held back a year. (Not that I would ever eavesdrop on a private conversation.)

Finally, after waiting for what seemed as long as the dishwasher cycle takes, it was our turn to visit with Jack’s teacher, who I will call Mrs. M. to protect her innocence. Everyone adored Mrs. M., whose genuinely warm smile was contagious and her fashionable outfits to die for. She was truly passionate about teaching and her many years of experience gave her complete control over her students. In short, Mrs. M. had all the qualities you could ever wish for in a teacher but never came close to emulating as a mother.

To my recollection, our therapy session, I mean parent-teacher conference, went something like this:

Mrs. M.: “Jack is such a pleasure to have in class. He gets along with everyone. He is a hard worker, and he is very bright. I love his red hair.”

Me: “Thank you.”

Mrs. M.: “As you can see from his spelling test, he got four out of five words correct, which is very good.”

Me: “Now, wait a minute. He has all the right letters– ‘w-n-a-t’; they’re just not in the right order.”

Mrs. M.: “Exactly.”

Me: “So what does this mean? Does he need a spelling tutor?”

Mrs. M.: “Of course not. He is meeting expectations in all of his subjects, except he can work a little harder on capitalization.”

Me: “I’ll get right on that!”

Mrs. M.: “In reading, he blends consonant sounds and short vowels in monosyllabic words.”

Me: “Is that a good thing?”

Mrs: M.: “In math, he scores in the 97th percentile.”

Scott: “Jack is good with numbers. He gets that from me.”

Mrs M.: “Here’s a picture of hearts and arrows that he drew for you. It says, ‘I love my mommy.’ Isn’t that sweet?”

Me: “Can you please pass the box of tissue? I get a little emotional.”

Mrs. M.: “I am very proud of the progress that Jack has made this year. He is a perfectly…”

Me: “Thank…”

Mrs. M.: “… average student.”

Me: “What?! Did you say average? I thought you told me that he was doing so well.”

Mrs. M.: “He is doing excellent and is a very well-rounded boy with strengths and weaknesses that are to be expected. As a parent and a teacher, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

On that note, we shook hands with Mrs. M. and said good-bye. Then we went home and hugged our little guy who waited up for us, of course. “What did my teacher say about me?” Jack asked curiously as he laid on his pillow.

With a tear still in my eye, I calmly answered him. “Your teacher says that you are a perfectly average student. Keep up the good work. We couldn’t be more proud of you.”

In the end, the most important lesson that I learned that day is the same one that Judaism reinforces in The Book of Proverbs: “Teach a child bed’arko, or “in the way he should go.” To me, this means that a child learns in his own unique way and at his own pace. A child should learn for the sake of learning and not for a statistic on a photocopied slip of paper or for the satisfaction of his parents. A child’s intelligence is therefore measured by how he applies his knowledge to improve his life and better his world.

The Mishegas of Motherhood is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to [email protected]

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