She was so mad that her face was red, eyes tearing, and imaginary puffs of smoke were coming out of her ears. She didn't have an appointment with me, but there she was. In my classroom. Screaming. In my face.
Why did you fail my child? I tried to explain. Why did you fail my child! After unsuccessfully trying to finish a sentence about ten times, I realized that this angry mother was not really asking a question. She was demanding that I apologize, that I admit I made a mistake and change the grade.
It didn't matter that I sent home more than five notes—including a progress report—that chronicled the 7th grader's lack of engagement, little homework, and poor performance on tests. The mom loudly explained that the student gave the notes to the dad; he signed the correspondences and did not tell the mom—after all, he had moved out of the house. I asked: How was I supposed to know this? Why do you think your daughter told her father and not you? Why didn't your daughter make any effort to do her work when she knew she was failing?
I tried to excuse myself, explaining that my next conference was at the home of a mom who is recovering from having been run over by a car. You aren't going anywhere until you explain to me why you didn't tell me that my child was failing! It was not the best time to get flippant, but I asked her, So what? Are you holding me hostage in my classroom?
That's when she called me a b---- and blocked the door. It didn't help that she had an unidentified woman with her, stacking the odds against me in the event this mom wanted to fight. In the end, she chose to storm out of the room, shouting obscenities for all the parents and students in the hallway to hear.
That's my report card pick-up horror story. Oddly enough, my colleagues and I discovered that the incident was loaded with valuable information. First off, we needed to beef up security in the building! But seeing our parents in raw form also gave us insights on how we can better reach our students. For example, instead of asking how we can get more students to do their homework, we began asking how to free up some time in school or after school to allow students to do their homework. While the expectation for homework completion would not change, we realized that our students' homes are not always quiet, peaceful places in which to study.
Today I am holding parent-teacher conferences at my school, and my past experiences have caused me to expect the unexpected. I've listed below a few of my most memorable report card conferences, and I reflect on how they helped me change my approach with certain students.
• What Happened: A student's aunt showed up for conferences instead of the mother. Unprovoked, she explained, "His mother had an abortion this morning, that's why she couldn't come." I told her that I hoped she wasn't this forthcoming around my student and his three siblings, but she told me that they already knew. What I Learned: My third grade student's behavior problems and low self-esteem might be rooted in him needing more attention from his single mother. I understood why calling his mother when he misbehaved was unproductive, and began thinking of other ways to reach him.
• What Happened: The parent conference with one of my white families ended with the mother telling me that she blames her husband for her 4th grade son's behavior problems. She rolled up her sleeves and showed me several bruises she recently received at the hands of the man. In addition, she told me that when I call home the father is so polite and respectful, but he called me "The Black B----" around the house. What I Learned: The disrespect I got from the child is based on his father's racist and misogynistic views, not because I was doing anything wrong. I needed to stop communicating with the dad and show the student so much love and kindness that he would have a hard time rationalizing his hatred. Adding more lessons about the accomplishments by African-American women was also in order!
• What Happened: A mother kept falling asleep in her child's parent-teacher conference. Every two or three minutes, the mother would nod off—and even snore—and her third grade daughter would have to poke or shake her to wake up. What I Learned: At the end of every day, the girl would say, "Ms. Rhames, I am going to miss you." I told her that she'd be back the next morning and she would say, "I know, but I'm going to miss you from now until then." Now I knew why she missed me so: Her mother was a drug addict, and I didn't know that until report card pick-up.
• What Happened: The mother of my student with Asperger Syndrome explained how her 6th grade son cooks dinner for her when she works late and does most of the housework so she doesn't have to. She explained that he asked her if it was okay that he loved Ms. Rhames because he didn't want to make her feel jealous. What I Learned: Though this student had trouble expressing himself to teachers and peers, deep down inside he was the most thoughtful and loving child I've ever taught.
I encourage you to enter parent teacher conferences with your eyes wide open. It's more than just a time to tell the parents how their child is doing in school. It's your window into the private world of a child. Ask good questions. Be open and honest. Be willing to listen to the parents—even if they are too angry to hear anything from you. Most times nothing memorable happens at parent-teacher conferences, but when they take an unexpected turn‐ and inevitably one will‐ you're sure to get an education.