When I think about it, the number of conferences I have attended with individual teachers since 1992 is roughly 254, but that's just a guess.
Conferences started in preschool, where I sat in tiny chairs and looked at self-portraits and macaroni art and handprint pictures as a way to gauge the growth of my new learners.
Next thing I knew, I was wandering the halls of the middle school, meeting with teachers in each subject to find out how my daughters were doing in pre-algebra, literature, and music. Later this school year, when I have done the last round of conferences for my eldest daughter, a high school senior, I will have met with teachers more than 100 times to talk about Katie's schoolwork, and that's just one child.
Just what have I learned in all of these sessions?
Mostly that my children like to talk.
Of course, the high school teachers report this as a positive thing – meaning, my daughters participate in class discussions and are otherwise polite and conversational.
I expect this week the middle school teachers will report this fact about Jimmy with varying degrees of patience. My son doesn't talk incessantly (as he used to do) but he still is sometimes more loquacious than the classroom atmosphere warrants.
The fourth-grade teachers will simply tell me that my daughter Amy talks too much – all day, to anyone who will listen and even to people who don't listen. She is a chatterbox.
It's quaint, really, the way teachers report this trait to me. They seem to hedge at first – not sure how I'll take the news that my child is inappropriately communicative – but out of sheer frustration, they have to tell me the truth. How else can I help foster self-discipline with threats such as "Stop talking in class or I'll give you something to talk about"?
What cracks me up is that every teacher breaks it to me as if this is news to me – as if I am not the woman transporting my child around town with a constant stream of conversation emitting from over my right shoulder – as if I am unaware that in my home where no thought goes unexpressed.
When you have children who talk too much, you definitely know it.
I know what's going to happen at the conference. Amy's teacher will say something charitable but honest, such as, "Amy's socializing is a bit distracting," and I'll feel sheepish.
Okay, sheepish is the wrong word. Embarrassed – that's a better word.
This won't be the first time I've heard this, of course, so I know that a child who talks too much and all the time probably is saying things that compromise the family's privacy, if not our dignity.
So I'll do what any mother would do when feeling embarrassed about her daughter's verbosity. I'll talk too much and too fast about why she's inappropriately chatty.
Inside a minute, I'll realize I'm demonstrating the whole apple-not-falling-far-from-the-tree thing, leaving me nothing to do but admit that talking is just something we do in our family and, oh, by the way, how's she doing in math?
I know parent-teacher conferences are supposed to focus on a child's classroom experience and overall development, but for some reason, I always feel they're performance evaluations for parenting.
If a teacher says my child seems tired, I worry I'm not getting the job done at bedtime.
If she points to a homework assignment that's less than stellar, I check the date and then explain the extenuating circumstances that prevented me from doing a better job of supervising.
If there's a comment about poor handwriting, I assume I'm not holding up the standard for neat work.
Defensive? Who, me?
Yes and no.
Yes, I admit I would prefer to look good in the eyes of my children's teachers, or at least, I would like to not appear to be asleep at the switch. (And it's not that I'm asleep – it's just that there are so many switches at my house – but who's defensive?)
And no, because I'm not defensive so much as I am anxious to put my children in context so their teachers can get to know them a bit better and, in this way, appreciate them a little more.
Of course, when a child talks about everything she's thinking, feeling and experiencing as it happens, you get pretty familiar with each other. But my goal is to convey more than the running commentary you hear from a 9-year-old who can't help but tell you what she had for dinner last night, how her dog looks with a new haircut, and why her sisters got in a fight before school.
Sometimes my conferences focus on social skills, sometimes on work habits, or perhaps I share an observation about a new interest or a stumbling block to learning. Every child is different, so having four means I have to think carefully about what each one needs to be successful.
Then again, every so often a teacher tells me something I don't already know about one of my children, so conferences can be enlightening. Unbelievable as it is, there are things they occasionally forget to mention from the back seat of the van.