The Conference

  • David Hoffman In my ten-plus years of penning columns for school newsletters, I have never written about my junior high school experience, and for good reason.  My three years in junior high can best be described as mercurial with many more cellars than summits. I liken my early 70s experience to that of visiting the dentist and having a cavity filled: inevitable, somewhat painful and, thankfully, soon forgotten. My teachers were vestiges of an archaic instructional mentality that viewed pre-teens as disrespectful, distrustful, and generally delinquent.  Never mind that I was a clean-cut kid who went to school in synthetic slacks, penny loafers and a shirt buttoned up to my chin.  I always felt like a non-entity, essentially endured but rarely educated.  

    How could a student feel comfortable around a shop teacher who screamed at klutzy kids like me while brandishing a blazing acetylene torch (mine was the only shoddily, soldered metal door knocker that refused to knock), a math teacher whom we called Yucky Lucky because his Lucky Strikes cigarette packages featured prominently through his front shirt pocket and on his breath, and a gym teacher who refused to respectfully acknowledge one’s first name:  “Hoffman, ten more laps. Hoffman, twenty-five more push-ups. Hoffman, when was the last time you disinfected your gym uniform?” Really, sometimes I think many of my junior high school teachers were the templates for the villainous, bullying, foolhardy adults found in Roald Dahl books. 

    Then there was my seventh grade teacher.  I won’t print his name, because like a certain Harry Potter character whose-name-shall-not-be-mentioned, he was, to this twelve year old, evil incarnate.   I can honestly say that, for most of my education, I have benefited from benevolent, skilled, and inspiring teachers.  I have written about many of then.  But, my seventh grade teacher was the exception.  He threw tantrums and books, detained us after school for an extra hour for trivial reasons. And, because his personality complex was pure Colonel, his punishment was occasionally corporal (this was the early seventies in Nebraska). Needless to say, my behavior that year was impeccable.  It shouldn’t surprise you that our classroom pet was a real piranha named Rasputin!    I kid you not.  He-who-shall-not-be-named would often feed it frogs while donning a smirk. 

    Accordingly, I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring at the end of each school day. I would run the few miles home where I found solace in Star Trek reruns, Led Zeppelin albums, and sugared cereal.  My dad, a single parent, trying valiantly to raise three teenagers, strengthened the feeling of security when he returned home each day from work and offered a smile and a sincere how-was-school. I rarely divulged the dastardly deeds of a certain seventh grade teacher. My dad would have simply reminded me to be respectful of my teachers.

    So it was beyond shocking when, one day in early November, my dad came home and told me that my seventh grade teacher would be visiting our house for a parent-teacher conference. 

    Apparently, my school district felt the need to try something radically different for conferences that year by personalizing the parent-teacher bond.  The plan was for teachers to drive from house to house, schmooze with cordial parents over coffee, gain insight into their students’ lifestyles and influences, and then proceed to tell moms and dads why their child was flunking science.   

    [Remember that feeling of disequilibrium when you ran into your teacher at a shopping mall and viewed them as a fish out of water --“You mean they shop for clothes too?” Well this was even worse.  My teacher would be entering my sanctuary, my safe house from all things sinister. He would infiltrate the inner sanctum where I watched Gilligan’s Island and consumed Capin’ Crunch.  And, he wouldn’t be just a simple, toothless fish out of water; he would be a prying piranha!]

    My dad organized for the event. We sanitized the house, hid any discriminating evidence of slothfulness, and made sure classics were prominently displayed on the bookshelves.   My father was a tea drinker so offering coffee was out of the question. We settled for soda. As for snacks, he didn’t cook and I was only capable of concocting cold cereal, a totally unacceptable hors d’oeuvre.  My sister, Rachel, was left with the task of creating her infamous egg salad sandwiches—smashed eggs mixed with celery and eggshells. 

    My dad came home early from work the day of the conference. He removed his tie in order to appear more casual and inviting. The house smelled like sulfur due to my sister’s piping hot egg salad sandwiches. (How appropriate: the scent of sulfur for a sinister visitor.)  I remember my teacher’s shadow approaching the front door. My dad warmly welcomed him into the Hoffman Hotel. Hugging my dad’s leg like a two year old, I gingerly greeted my teacher and then retreated to my bedroom where I remained hidden under the bed, straining to hear the conference through the floorboards and planning an escape through a second story window if things got out of control.  

    Eventually, He-who-shall-not-be-named left for his next conquest, er, conference.  My dad told me how proud he was of my school progress and how much my teacher liked me. Surprised, I came close to asking him if he had conferenced with a substitute teacher.  My sister’s egg salad sandwiches remained uneaten.

    Soon after conferences, my teacher, unexpectedly, shared with the class how much he enjoyed meeting parents and visiting homes. He actually told me that he appreciated my father’s hospitality and unwavering belief in his son.   

    I survived seventh grade with an intact ego and general tolerance for school.  While I may have not learned a lot from my instructor, I am grateful that he taught me a whole lot about the kind of educator I would never be.  More importantly, I am grateful that the bar against which an educator’s conduct is legally measured has risen over the years.  

    One school traditional that hasn’t changed much since that November in 1971 is the parent-teacher conference. While teachers forgo car trips to students’ homes, they still welcome the opportunity to sit down and share their classroom experiences, observations and assessments.  You won't have to clean your house or cook prior to meeting your student’s teacher in a few short weeks. However, you can do a few simple things in preparation:

    • Jot down questions you may have for teacher. Conferences go quickly and sometimes one forgets what he or she was going to ask.
    • Ask your children if there is anything they want you to ask their teachers.
    • Approach the conference as a chance to, collectively, with the teacher, set goals and review realistic expectations.

    When sharing report card information with your child remember: 

    • Find genuine ways to celebrate your child’s efforts. Listening to your son or daughter delight in explaining his or her successes works better than extrinsic rewards—it’s authentic and cheaper!
    • Choose one or two key areas for improvement and calmly set goals. Goals should be realistic and achievable. Write down and refer to them periodically with your child.
    • Grades belong to students, not parents. They are a means by which we can teach personal responsibility, natural consequences, and the value of hard work, good study skills and affirmative social skills. 
    • Resist comparing a child’s grades with those of siblings or neighbors. Each child is unique and deserves to have grades kept confidential. 
    • Your child is more than a grade. Grades are just one snapshot of a school experience.  A child is a growing bundle of potential and possibilities.

    Remember, everyone has the same goal of maximizing your child’s academic and social progress. As a team, we want to make sure the school is a safe, joyful, positive, and appropriately challenging experience, a place where students begin to acquire the habits of life long learners. Thank you in advance for all your support and assistance.  

    Finally, thank you for always supporting your child’s teacher while in earshot of your son or daughter (and, may I add, neighbor, friend, grocer, etc.)  In the many discussions I had with my father regarding junior high school memories, he never once slandered my teachers’ reputations.  He always reminded me that I would learn from and work with diverse personalities throughout my life; that every interaction was an opportunity to emulate the best personality traits and avoid the worst.    

    I subsequently discovered that my seventh grade teacher truly battled personal demons.  He had no business educating impressionable children. But, because of one late afternoon conference, I was secure in knowing I was quite capable and cared for.  Ultimately, that should be the simple message that is shared during and after any meaningful conference. 

    Respectfully, 

    David Hoffman