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Why the parent-teacher conferences my students lead offer the best evaluations I get

Last week I spent 12 hours listening to and watching the greatest assessment I have of myself as a teacher.

The assessments came during parent-teacher conferences at my school, a small high school in Brooklyn. At our school, students take over the conferences — the conventional paradigm often misses the most important part of the equation, the student. During these student-led conferences, each student stands before a panel comprised of peers, teachers, and parents and talk about what he or she learned (or was meant to learn) over the past trimester. This is an important, if not stressful, time for students to organize their work, stand before their parents, and answer some tough questions. We tell them they’re learning public speaking skills; practicing the skills they’ll need for college and job interviews. We also know that this is an important time for students to take responsibility for their learning and progress.

A student explained, “I want to talk to you about my history essay, because in many ways it was the hardest for me.”

“Why was it hard? ” I asked.

“Because I had to do a lot of the research on my own,” the student replied. “And also,” she continued, “I waited until the last minute.”

But for every reflective student who’s able to take emergent ownership over the learning process and connect what she’s learned to the world she lives in, there are many more that struggle with completing every assignment before the conference.

“I don’t have my math project to show you,” a student admits before his advisor and parents, “because my teacher didn’t give it back yet.”

“When did you turn it in?”

“Yesterday.”

“Wasn’t it due two weeks ago?”

“Yeah, but the teacher didn’t give it back.”

Other students have work to speak about but can’t seem to find the words.

This is a vulnerable time for students. It’s a vulnerable time for teachers as well. Each work sample reflects the classroom instruction that guided the student to its completion. As students describe what they study in their various courses, their memory is informed by class discussions and how consistently I, as their teacher, framed a narrative to guide our course of study. Months of class time is condensed to just a few minutes. And in those few minutes, I receive the greatest assessment I have of myself as a teacher.

We expect our students to think critically about the course material, but how often do students have time to think and speak critically about the course material in class? My answer, at least right now, is not at much as I would like.

Listening to students reflect during their conferences has highlighted the type of feedback I most often give student. If I were to take an inventory of all the feedback I give students in passing, the vast majority of it would be about behavior: Focus, quieter voices please, and you need to return to your seat.” Less frequent are the comments like, “You need to remember to carry the one, your sentences need stronger verbs, and can you clarify the differences between RNA and DNA.” Don’t get me wrong, I spend a lot of my day talking to students about their work and thoughts. However, I know I spend an even greater amount of time talking to students about their behavior.

It’s no surprise that when a student presents a history essay and I ask what he would do differently next time, he replies, “focus more.” Within the expanse of time a student is in my class, how much feedback do I give about her content mastery and skill development, and how much feedback do I give about her behaviors and habits of work. I speculate that if I tipped the scales I would begin to see higher quaility work.

What I want for my students is for them to be able to tell great stories about themselves. Years from now, when I run into my former students on the train, I want them to tell me about the crazy professor they had in college, the scary first interview, a reconciliation they had with a friend. Student led conferences are a check-in towards that moment. Do they feel comfortable speaking with adults about their goals and progress? Are they informed by reflection? Am I providing students with meaningful learning experiences that challenge them?

The conferences assess not just my pedagogy, but that of my colleagues as well, and indeed how well we work together as a faculty. Student Led Conferences are time intensive (we change our schedules) and expensive (teachers are paid overtime), but are some of the most intense, celebratory, and sometimes redemptive moments we spend with our students. As a faculty, we use a common rubric to evaluate student conferences and track their growth over time. The data we generate is more descriptive than any final grade on a transcript — in terms of both student growth, and my own.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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