Why do school conferences make me question my existence?

Last night was the thrice-yearly school conference night at our kids high school. Because we’re on a trimester plan, we get this fun three times a year. It’s not the process or set up that strikes dread in my heart every time conference time rolls around. It’s handled pretty well, actually – teachers in 4 main rooms, all arranged in alphabetical order with a handy map to get you there. As long as you come in armed with your kid’s teacher’s names, you’ll get to the people you need without too much fuss. You’ll also have an opportunity to sugar-up on bake sale goodies (fund the orchestra!), buy a sweatshirt (fund football!) or any number of money-raising options to support the various activities and clubs at the school. This is all fine, expected and no problem to handle or experience.

As anyone who has ever been to a cattle-call type conference knows, you will not see every teacher. We have two kids at this school so chances are even lower. Therefore, we have to determine the highest priority teachers we need to hit. You know what that means – the classes that either child is having any sort of issue with: trouble with material, missing homework, general shenanigans and monkeyshines, etc. Important stuff, to be sure, but not always the most fun. We sit with each teacher, review transcripts, discuss options and suggestions and move on to the next teacher. And so on, and so on. It all boils down to the same basic thing: I have two very smart kids who aren’t particularly driven. They have all the ability in the world but not a lot of interest in using what they have – at least not on the things that they don’t want to. Give my son a song and an instrument and he’ll sit all day and night trying to noodle it out. Give my daughter pen and paper and she creates wonderful things. Ask them to care about Chem 2 and you’ve got a battle on your hands.

I recognize this because this is where I was in high school. In middle school, I was a smart kid in a dumb school that got A’s just for showing up unarmed and not high. My parents pulled me out and put me in a private school where I was well and truly challenged and I had no idea how to cope. Over time I scraped together enough skills to make it through high school and into a decent college but never graduated. Here’s the thing: I didn’t see the point. I didn’t care enough to understand why it mattered and what limitations it would put on me in later life. Since that time I’ve been incredibly lucky and have landed in a career I never saw coming in a field I never had considered but getting there was a series of serendipitous happenings that would defy the belief of any Hollywood writer, including, but not limited to, the invention of the Internet. Over those years I’ve learned to care, to work hard and to enjoy the benefits that comes from this work but I am incredibly lucky to have bounced into my path.

I think I’m a pretty smart person but I see abilities in my kids I’ve never dreamed of. They’re quicker, sharper and more adept than me in many ways. But they are just as unimpressed with the possibilities that I was at their age. What frightens me is how well I understand how truly lucky I am to have landed where I am. If they follow my path, will the same serendipity follow them? Maybe, maybe not. But we likely shouldn’t bank on it. But back to conference night…

Step 1 of Post-Conference Club is don’t talk about Post-Conference Club. My husband and I ride home in near silence. One of us might start a sentence: “maybe we oughta take away internet access?…” or “It’s that South Park crap, right?” but inevitably our voices trail off. We’ve said these things before, we’ve tried many, we get the same results.

Step 2 of PCC is The Talk. That’s when one or both of us report to each child separately about what we’ve learned and where they need to step up. Said talk might include the following ingredients (in no particular order):

  • The bit of encouragement: “Your math teacher appreciates that you aren’t drawing so much anime on your worksheets anymore”.
  • The dangling of the rewards/consequences: “You do understand that if you want to go on the band/orchestra/French club trip, you have to hit your grades, right?”
  • The tearful recrimination: “But you swore this tri was going to be different!”
  • The ‘we’re just trying to help you understand the impact on your future!’: “blah blah blah blah blah” (as apparently heard by my children)

This is largely how it goes:


This sends me very quickly into step 3 of PCC: self-recrimination. I begin questioning myself and all I’ve done up till now as a mom. The mistakes I’ve apparently made to mold these bright and eager minds into the just-can’t-be-bothered teens of today. Do I work too many hours? (without a doubt). Too many preservatives in their diet? (duh) . Did that one time I largely wrote my son’s summer essay have a bigger impact than I thought? (well, maybe. But who the hell assigns a 10-year-old to read King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, in damned near middle English, over the summer and expect an essay on the importance of goal setting by the first day of school? Eesh!) Whatever the cause – and it’s likely stuff I can’t even fathom, I circle down into the “I’m a bad mom” pool of despair, questioning why anyone decided I should be allowed to have shared responsibility for these two creatures. This step will last 2-3 days.

Slowly but surely, the memory of this trimester’s conference will fade into the mists of time. We’ll perhaps make an improvement or two or maybe not. But I’ll bet my cat there’ll be a new set of crap opportunities for growth to discuss next time around and the steps begin anew.

Maybe next tri, no matter what’s going on with grades, my husband and I will only sit with the teachers of classes the kids are rocking. And there are those classes and they aren’t just orchestra. A reminder that perhaps we’ve done *something* right along the way would be a good thing.

In the meantime, I’m open to other coping strategies. What works for you? Or, as I secretly suspect, are everyone else’s kids perfect?


3 thoughts on “Why do school conferences make me question my existence?

  1. I’m absurdly encouraged to hear that I’m not the only parent following the Encouragement / Reward / Recrimination / Impact four-step process. I thought it was just a personal hybrid approach I had inherited from my parents and blended with a bit of Covey.

    Middle English sucks, by the way, even for a middle-aged English guy like me. Forsooth.

    • I’m thinking a fifth step is needed here. Something somewhere in between “you can do it!” encouragement and a “release the krakens” punishment. I haven’t hit upon it yet but hope to before they leave school.

  2. We lived that with both of our children. When our daughter was 21, I cleaned out her bedroom to shift her stuff to a different room in the house. It took me 2 days. I uncovered the mother lode of school correspondence, buried in her closet.

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