Big People in Little Chairs
I recently had the joy of attending two teacher-parent-admin meetings in rapid succession, once on each side of the table. My daughter’s teaching and support team met with her mother and me at the crack of dawn, and then, after just long enough to twiddle my lips a few times, I found myself seated as a Learning Specialist with teachers, administrators, and parents at my school to discuss a 7th grader’s academic journey.
The joyous fact is that, in spite of a common-sense notion that these roles are completely different, they have more in common than I would have suspected. In fact, the “changing hats” metaphor is more specifically apt than you might think: yes, I did take off my Parent Hat and put on the Learning Specialist Hat, but they are just darn hats! From my forehead down I am fully Mike under those hats, in both arenas, and the more honest and genuinely Mike I can be, the better for each role. I’m there in both cases as an advocate among advocates, with very different lenses and pieces of each puzzle, but absolutely parallel goals (a child’s happiness, success, and preparation for the future...you know, nothing big). And in both cases, those goals are best met when I strive to understand and respect what is at stake for every other person in the room, as best I can.
I have to add, having said “each side of the table,” that it is important that this never be literally so. A meeting should not feel like an American Idol audition or Captain Marvel addressing the Council of Elders. If it happens by chance, please stand up and move to the other side. Otherwise the lone parent or couple (or possibly teacher or administrator) will be more defensive and feel less cared for--an unbalanced table group is not the formation of a team, and our bodies know this, even if our minds say “Oh pshaw.”
Two things about these types of meetings I wish to convey:
- Talking about progress shouldn’t be confusing, but it is. We can remedy this a great deal if we talk about two kinds of progress, separately: progress relative to self, and progress relative to peers. As teachers and helpers we should offer this; as parents we should ask for it.
- Though everyone present would bristle at the assertion that they are present for anything other than the child’s well-being, beyond that shared concern, each player has different things at stake, and it is in the best interests of the child if everyone goes in understanding the personal stakes for each person in the room. What does she need? What does he need? What do they need?...
Perhaps because the teachers are with the child every day, and they don’t always realize how much the school-child may differ from the home-child; perhaps because teachers assume parents must have a baseline clarity about their child’s academic strengths and challenges (especially teachers who are not parents); or perhaps because of misplaced privacy notions regarding discussing “other children” with a family: teachers often leave out the "progress-relative-to-peers" piece entirely. But this kind of progress is often the crux of the problem--is the skills gap closing or widening between my child and her classmates? Yet the combination of the above assumptions and the further disinclination to be frank because it is simply a more difficult conversation to have, leads many educators to dwell mostly or entirely upon improvements relative to self, simply labeling them as progress.
So maybe James is talking out of turn much less, or getting much more of his homework in. But if his peers are turning all of their homework in, and talking out of turn never, that is key information! Furthermore, if James happens to feel no agency in these behaviors, if they are beyond his control in some way, he is likely suffering in spite of his “improvement” and if parents go home feeling like he’s doing great because he is improving--after all, that’s all anyone can do!--he suffers alone. He still feels different from his peers (and is) and he is now less likely to continue to improve, because it’s much harder alone. What a relief to have parents come from a teacher meeting happily saying how proud teachers are of your progress! How difficult would it be to then say, “Actually, dad, I don’t feel like it’s going so well...”
What parents often get in meetings, even with talented veteran educators, is a confusing mishmash of positives and negatives, and we naturally average these out to see which side wins. And because of the process I just described, positive often wins, and parents leave feeling uneasily swayed toward an outcome that “things are good. James just needs to work a little more on A, B and C.” This process of averaging needs to be made unnecessary through more clarity. Helpers need to help parents hold the strengths and challenges side by side, celebrating the strengths and continuing to scaffold their child’s joy in those strengths, which are a major source of comfort and satisfaction in school, while also clearly delineating the impact of the child’s challenges on his quality of school life, and providing concrete ways for the entire home-school team to support efficient progress addressing those challenges.
So, we must always be clear about which kind of progress we are describing, and we have to describe both. We have to address progress relative to self because it is the most fundamental kind of progress, and the child--who may be entirely focused on comparing herself to peers and be missing her own progress completely--needs to see and feel the achievement of such progress. Yet, we must also consider the child’s progress relative to her peers, or to grade-level expectations, or whatever normative measure the school is comfortable addressing with parents, because if that gap is widening, we are setting the child up for more frustration, more missed learning, more feeling inadequate, and probably the inevitable cessation of that progress, because what’s the use? If that gap is closing, is it closing quickly enough? Do we need to add further measures to increase the rate of that progress and can we do that without exhausting the child?
The self-peers pair is sort of the school version of a key belief I have about tutoring. There’s another pair of musts here. It is vital that good tutoring provide long-term remediation and short term help. Not either/or, but both/and. That is, a child may have core skills missing, and need many hours of help to build them up, yet if I focus entirely on that long-term project and neglect the fact that the child is walking into class, experiencing her own challenges as immutable and innate each day, then I’m basically risking her engagement in everything we do by acting like it is OK for her to be hemorrhaging self-esteem all day. She also gets no reason to believe school can be better than this for her. These implicit messages are unacceptable to me. She is fine as she is--we are not working to “make her OK someday.” She does not deserve to suffer. So it is imperative that I help her first to understand herself as a learner with her current skill set--always in the context of a growth mindset, but not implying that she will grow into something “better,” just someone for whom some tasks are easier--and help her figure out how to navigate school as she is, with self-esteem intact. But it is precisely just as vital that she be getting the long-term remediation as well, because with only the short-term coping strategies, I may actually be systematically teaching her to stifle her own potential by avoiding or working around challenging areas rather than strengthening them. This, she also does not deserve. She and every student deserve both immediate and long-term help, and to feel reasonably good about themselves the entire time.
Now then, what is at stake for each person in that meeting we were discussing? Get ready--here come some pretty global assumptions and I’m trusting you to see their value as a starting place in such meetings, from which one can address people present and then listen and calibrate responses to how correct or off-base these assumptions actually are with respect to each singular individual in that room on that day.
Teachers need clarity and resources. I don’t care how well resourced the school is, that person is in a room with 20 or 30 kids, and each of those kids could work with that teacher one-on-one all day and still benefit from yet more differentiation, information, support, and care. The need is endless. It is impossible to do enough. Of course, a skilled teacher is not the sole source of knowledge and learning in the classroom, but the almost magical facilitator and manager of the awesome brainpower and curiosity of that group and the learning potential seeping out of every corner of their shared environment. In a great classroom, they are all teachers and learners and helpers and helped, and the teacher is more the navigator than the crew--or the power source! And still, there is always more to give, and there are constantly new obstacles raised by circumstance and bureaucracy to foil that giving. So teachers need clarity--what specifically is being asked of them, and how will they acquire the resources to give it, especially the resource of time?
Administrators need problems solved. They arrive at school to take their place at an I Love Lucy conveyor belt of issues every day. The people they value most take more problems off the table than they bring, and everyone else does the opposite. Each problem before them is generally growing or shrinking at any given time. The prime directive is to keep the growing problems of one area (or family) from affecting other areas (or families), and to make them all shrink and disappear as quickly as possible. I think there must be joy in the problem-solving aspect of the job, satisfaction when one peruses the population served and appreciates all the problems that are not affecting the majority. I’m not sure; it makes me queasy to contemplate, but I am not the appropriate personality type for such a job! Nevertheless, an administrator will attend a meeting seeking to keep problems from arising, getting bigger, or affecting others, and will seek ways to shrink or overcome them as efficiently as possible, because that conveyer belt does not stop.
Parents need transparency, tools, and emotional support. If every teacher is under-resourced, every parent feels inadequate. We are all pretty sure we are doing it wrong. Some of us avoid facing that worry by obsessively fault-finding among all the other people who interact with our kids. Some of us are so overwhelmed by parenthood that we just nod and smile and hope, but don’t really take in anything anyone says. Parenthood confronts us with the most befuddling constellation of gray areas we will ever encounter, countless binaries that we must find an elusive happy medium between: freedom & control, fun & work, leniency & sternness, support & detachment, activities & downtime, and on and on and on. Parents are desperate for a kind of clarity that they simply cannot access on their own, because they lack the emotional distance to see clearly. Their child, whom they generally care about more than just about anyone or anything else in this life, is the manifestation of their genes and their parenting skills in the world, and a comment about that child, positive or negative, is basically a comment about the parent. Or it feels that way.
I’ve watched a teacher describe a child’s (negative) behavior, and then both parents are silent. The teacher assumes that they don’t get it, so he describes a similar incident. The parents might nod but are still very quiet. The teacher describes another incident and the parents look frustrated or downright upset. After seeing this dynamic several times, I think I understand part of what may be happening. The teacher is actually asking for help, but quite often the parents want help with the same behavior, so they are both disappointed and mortified that it is happening at school. Because they don’t explain the behavior or make suggestions, the teacher tries to communicate the seriousness of the situation by offering another example. The parents’ mortification and disappointment deepens, because they were hoping for answers, and they are kind of getting pummeled with the sense that no one can help their child or them. By the third example, the parents are beginning to get mad because it feels like a case is being made against their child, by a person who obviously doesn’t like their child or them. The relationship may be headed for disaster at this point. When parents are silent in meetings, there is often great discomfort happening. Imagine what you just said about their child was about them, and assume that they got it from the first example--they do not have the teacherly context of a classroom full of flawed kids each with their own foibles, so their kid may sound like a monster among angels from the very first example. Case making does happen, and unless this is actually what you are doing, you do not want to create that impression. If you simply say that you are asking for help, you might at least get an acknowledgement that they are as stumped as you, and this can build connection as you agree to contact one another if either party makes progress with this puzzle. And if we can remember to add the context of less-than-perfect peers to their child, it will be much easier to hear.
Ah, brains. I have one. It just woke me from only about five hours sleep with an elaborate nightmare which ended with me floating in the Bay, having fallen from a collapsed bridge, deciding whether or not to bother trying to swim to shore, because San Francisco had apparently just been nuked. I awoke, convinced myself that no part of that had happened, wondered if I had a fever, and then went, “Oh! Duh! You forgot to mention what’s really going on in those meetings, and everywhere else.” Whoops! Brains are neat (and terrifying).
Again, oversimplified, but really helpful: I teach kids about one set of ingredients for “feeling OK” which I learned from Tribes way back when, and they apply here before any of those other “stakes.”
Everyone in that meeting wants to feel a sense of Autonomy, Belonging, and Competence, and they will instinctively ally with those who foster these things, and shrink from those who threaten them. Most will come into the room on high alert because all three are profoundly threatened by the occasion--especially for parents when you consider that they are getting a double whammy because both their own and their child’s Autonomy, Belonging, and Competence (which of course feels like an extension of their own anyway) are under threat!
Again, in exactly the same way as when working with a student, these considerations would be purely manipulative if they were merely used to seduce people into giving you what you want. This is what an unhealed abused person may do, because the weakness of genuineness is too dangerous, and domination is the only route to safety. But the rest can (and must) simply keep an eagle-eye out for the genuine opportunities to offer meaningful choice (fostering Autonomy), to identify shared experiences (fostering Belonging), and to delineate the wisdom and skill with which another person is navigating their role (fostering Competence). These are solid building blocks for ABC and doing this in a genuine way builds real connection, enables collaboration, and creates efficient teams that are a joy to be a part of.
With a student, I am a strengths detective, using that eagle eye to relentlessly introduce or re-introduce the student to strengths that have become buried beneath a pile of suffering due to misunderstood challenges that have systematically eroded their senses of A, B, and C. Telling them is often ineffective; they must be shown--in fact, they must demonstrate the strengths to themselves, and have them identified as such in an inarguable manner. You just did that and that is awesome. I know people who dream of doing that as easily as you just did. It is the same for adults, including me. We become blind to our assets and it hurts.
Things Students Need to Know: Guessing
Things Students Need to Know: Teachers Generally Love School
Nuts and Bolts: Word Problems
Nuts and Bolts: Integers
Nuts and Bolts: Systematically finding the Main Idea