Spring means warmer weather. Family travel plans. And parent-teacher conferences.
Later this week, I will sit in a tiny chair next to my husband and in front of my sons’ teachers. And if the past several years of parent-teacher conferences are any indication, they will go something like this: We will likely spend 20 or so minutes talking about our sons’ progress and development, things like reading level and math facts and state capitals. My husband and I will be shown various worksheets, tests, and reports to demonstrate their progress and areas for improvement. We will nod our heads when the teachers tell us that our older son has trouble with spelling and our younger son has trouble holding a pencil.
But while I am nodding along, I won’t really be listening when the teacher talks about reading levels and multiplication tables and state capitals. Instead, my mind will be racing with all of the things I really want to talk about and the questions I really want to ask. Because as much as I want to make sure that my children aren’t struggling, at this age, in elementary school, I’m not as concerned with their progress as students as much as I am with their development as people.
And so, while we are talking about reading, math, and science, what I’ll really want to know is how they act with their peers. Are they a good friend? Are they respectful and kind? Are they inclusive, inviting others to join their games? Do they listen, observe, and lift people up?
I want to know less about their education, and more about how they feel about education. Are they excited about learning? Do they ask questions? Do they try new tasks even though they know that they might fail? Do their eyes light up when they finally understand something they have tried to master?
I want to know how they handle success and struggle. If a task comes easily to them, do they use that knowledge to help their peers? Are they restless and jittery, or do they use their extra time to help their classmates learn that task? And if they are struggling with something, do they quickly give up? Or do they keep at it? Are they taught to find new ways to go about solving the problem?
Of course, I always come into these conferences with my own fears and doubts about the education system. I try to quell my frustrations and criticisms so that I, too, can learn more. Because I really do want to understand the rationale behind homework and standardized testing — things that I resist with every fiber of my being.
I will stop short of begging their teachers to tell me what they really think, not what they feel like they “should” say. Do they really think that much homework is helpful at this age? Really? If so, how is it helpful? And if not, then why have homework at all? And what about standardized testing? Since I am debating opting my son out of PARCC testing this year, I want to plead with them to tell me what to do. What would you do?
And, of course, I want to know how my sons treat their teachers. Do they give them the respect they so deeply deserve? Do they listen and communicate productively when they disagree? Do they try to make their jobs easier so that they can do their Very Important Work?
I know my children well — as well as any mother could — but I do not know them in the way that their teachers do. I do not see them when they are out in the world, away from me. At school, they are able to stretch their wings, and practice being the person they are to become, in a way that they cannot do under the watchful eye of their father and me. I want to know this person. Who is he? What do his teachers see that I don’t? How is my child changing and growing, struggling and improving?
Tell me about that person, I will want to say. Not the test scores and the reading charts and the spelling tests. Tell me about the little person that is my child, the one who is growing up and out and away from me, as all children do. Tell me about the person that my child is becoming. Tell me about the person that my child is. Because that little person — my child — is the one I love, the one I really want to know.
These are the things that go through my head, the questions I really want to ask. But 20 minutes is short, and my questions get jumbled in my head or caught in my throat.
But sometimes, if I’m really lucky, the teacher will answer these questions without my asking.
And I will sit in a tiny chair at a tiny table in front of my son’s teacher, and I will cry with humility and the most profound gratitude.