29 November 2018

Not Just Another Holiday Post

by Brian Thornton

November is nearly always a challenging month for me. It begins with the run-up to Veterans' Day (about which I have rather strong feelings, and about which I wrote in a blog post earlier this month), then the run-up to Thanksgiving Day, only to terminate headlong in to the beginning of the sprint towards Christmas.

And sandwiched in there in the midst of all of this excitement, you have the singular experience of Parent Conferences.

Regular readers (both of them) of my rotation in this group blog will recall that I teach middle school: specifically to eighth graders; more specifically ancient world history (and as I tell my students all the time, by "ancient world history," I most assuredly do not mean "the 1990s".).

I've blogged from time to time about the experiences to which my day gig has exposed me, not least here, when I wrote about chaperoning an end-of-school-year dance a year-and-a-half ago, for example. I have to admit: I write because I have to (if you're a fellow sufferer of the syndrome, you know what I'm talking about). I teach because I like to.

I enjoy 13-14 year-olds (there, I said it.). Otherwise why would I even do this job? And I love history and the teaching of same.

All that said, the run-up to Parent Conferences is stressful. There's lots to do, for staff and for students. This is in no small part because in my district we do student-led conferences. Ideally teachers mostly listen (alongside parents) while kids lay out their education goals in our classes, track their progress, and formulate plans to address obstacles which might keep them from achieving their goals.

I admit to a fair amount of initial skepticism about this format. After all modern education is littered with discarded fads which tried (and failed) to masquerade as trends.

But, while it's not a perfect process, it does a lot of good for kids. They experience immediate accountability (positive and negative), with their parents and teacher right there to either lend a hand, raise a cheer, or talk about what comes next.

I came early in my career to the realization that all too often, the parents most in need of attending one of these events are those teachers are least likely to encounter. Meanwhile, honors kids are often there in spades, flanked by one or both of their parents.

But a funny thing has begun to happen over the past several years: the turnout has trended sharply upward. I used to be able to count on at least a couple of lengthy breaks during conferences (we go from 1 PM to 4 PM, break for dinner, then reconvene from 5 PM to 8 PM). Not anymore, not for the past several years.

I am busy, start to finish. And anyone who has spent extended periods actively listening, knows how utterly exhausting it can be.

The upshot? It's also completely energizing. I drive home at the end of the night both wiped out and wired.

It was during just one such drive home at the end of my most recent conference experience that I had an epiphany. It was last Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, and it occurred to me that, for me, and those like me, at least, it's not Thanksgiving itself which serves as the table setter for the holiday season, for that time when we gather to spend a month or so celebrating with friends and family all of the blessings we receive over the course of the year.

It's Parent Conferences.

Here's why: we currently live in turbulent times. People are pessimistic (and usually with good reason) about the viability of so many of the institutions on which civil society rests: faith, good government, public and private institutions, capitalism, and so on.

Parent Conferences invariably renew my faith in our greatest resource: our children.

No less a sage than the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once famously said of the young:

"Kids today love luxury. They have terrible manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love to gab instead of getting off their butts and moving around."

The guy had a point, and you can hardly take the "human" out of "human nature."

But kids are more than cliches. Every year, day in, day out, I am amazed, amused, challenged and invigorated by them. They invariably teach me as much as (if not more than) I teach them.

What better way to start a season of prolonged celebration of the fraternity/sorority of humankind than to be reminded of this?

And what seals the deal is the families they bring along with them. Not just parents, but siblings, cousins, grandparents. It does the heart such good to experience one's neighbors in a setting such as this one.

So for those you out there reading this whose confidence in our species is flagging, who need a visible testament to the good-heartedness of human beings, I say to you: go volunteer at your local school.

All the affirmation of the good things coming down the pike is right there, ready and waiting, just to teach you.

Happy Happy, and see you all in two weeks!


  1. An interesting idea for the parent conferences- I am sure the success rests in big part on the dedicated and enthusiastic teachers.
    Happy holidays!

  2. A great post, Brian. It still pisses the hell out of me how so many public figures denigrate teaching and knowledge and education regularly. No names, but you know who I mean.

    I taught high school English for 33 years and loved about 95% of it. One of my constant observations was that the parents I really needed to talk to (the kids who were having or causing problems) seldom appeared. We agreed that one reason many of the students did well was because they knew mom or dad would show up to check.

    The way your school conducts the meetings sounds intriguing. The idea that the kids are actually owning their own progress or lack of it sounds good, but it would take some getting used to. Education should be centered on the students, though, so it makes sense.

    Actually, I left because the political "experts" were doing everything in their power to separate teachers from their subjects and their students and turning them into glorified record keepers.

    Honestly, if teaching were still about interacting with the kids and really getting to know them, I'd still be there every day. A big part of me is jealous for you.

    But maybe not middle school. I remember what I was like at that age...

  3. I loved teaching so much - and in a way, I'm still doing it at the pen, so... Once a teacher, always a teacher.
    Great job, Brian, and I know your students really appreciate you. Even when they don't. ;)

  4. I'm glad there are some good dedicated teachers around! The good teachers in my life, I can count on the fingers of one hand.

    When I was in school I was never given a chance to attend a parent-teacher conference. I'd hear about it afterwards from my mother, with comments such as, "Mrs. So-and-So says if you don't stop daydreaming in class, you'll never learn to read."

    Fads in education ... I remember old vs. new math & combination classes in the late 1950s. Then when my daughter was in second grade, in Catholic school, at a conference, her teacher told me she thought I should make her repeat second grade!!!! Yes, she was the youngest & the smallest in the class, but someone always is, & she did great academically & socially. I wouldn't agree to it because it would have given her the idea she had failed me. I have no doubt that the teacher suggested repeating a grade only because it was a fad at the time, the late 1980s.

    My daughter was in the National Honor Society in high school and got a full ride scholarship to U.Va. I seriously doubt she would have been able to do that if I'd made her repeat second grade.

  5. When I was young, I thought the nuns who taught me in grammar were mean until I grew up and realized - they taught me how to read and write, add and subtract. They also taught me something not taught today - penmanship and geography. THEY TAUGHT ME and I was not easy to teach.


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