Of course, at first, I hate conferences. Or rather, I dread them. Even though I regularly stay at school until 6:00, staying until 7:00 for conferences just seems so much later. The conferences themselves are exhausting. I speak Spanish well enough to conduct my own conferences in Spanish, but my mind goes into overdrive trying to think about how to say everything. I'm chatty with the parents, and so my conferences - even though I give myself longer for each conference than most teachers - tend to run over. For this reason, I try not to plan more than a few in a row. I give myself conference-free blocks of 30 minutes ever 3 conferences or so, so that I can catch up. Because of these buffer times, I have to schedule more long days than most teachers. But that's okay.
Because really, I love conferences. I wish I had more time for them. I wish we did them more often. I wish we had an opportunity for some sort of "pre" conference at the very beginning of the year. It would be great to have a time during the second week of school when all parents were supposed to come, talk to me for 15 minutes, and just tell me about their children and their children's family. I learn so much during these conferences, nearly 3 months into the school year, that would have been useful to know during the beginning months.
First of all, I just love to observe the family dynamic. I get to see this a little bit at "meet the teacher" night, before school begins. But, that's not in a one-on-one setting. There can be 10 kids and their families in the room at that time, and the kids are scared and quiet and the families are nervous and checking out the teacher.
During conferences, I was able to see that quiet P--- is so chatty and talkative with her mother - and when she is able to speak in Spanish. I couldn't even get P--- to talk at all during the first week of school. For the next two weeks, she would pretty much only speak when given the opportunity to talk into a microphone (oddly enough). Now, she talks to me and everyone else in the class, but her productive English is low, and she struggles. With her mother and me at conferences though, she was talking and talking, bouncing around the room showing her mother all our books, telling her mother what she's learned, begging and begging to read some of our favorite books to her mom. I also noticed at this time that in Spanish, she has a stutter. I've started to notice this in class a bit, too, as she speaks more and talks using multiple words (instead of one-word responses/questions). Without the opportunity to hear her fluently speak in Spanish during conferences, I may never have noticed this.
I was able to see R--- and his family. I didn't just get one parent, but I got his mom, his, dad, his big brother, and his little sister. R--- was so adorable throughout the conference. After he did his part (reading three notes to his parents about the things he had learned so far, and reading them a book he had practiced) he jumped up and asked me, "can I teach my sister how to count?" I told him that yes, while I talked with his parents about the boring things like "test" scores, he could teach his little sister to count. R--- called his sister over to a big 100s Chart and started counting. "Okay, listen to me" he commanded her, and he pointed to the numbers and counted. "One, two, three... Now your turn." I can tell R--- has been listening in class.
E---'s whole family came. I know that his mom and dad don't live together, and I told them that we could do two separate conferences, if they wanted, instead of just one, since I don't know their dynamic. They said one conference was fine, and E--- ended up coming with his mom, his mom's baby, his dad, his dad's new wife, their new baby, and another toddler. I've never had so many babies and parents in a conference. It was distracting to me, but wonderful to see so many people caring about E--- and his schooling. Everyone asked questions - his mom, his dad, and his stepmom.
During C---'s conference, I found out that she had started kindergarten in Mexico before moving to the US last year. I didn't know this, and it helps explain why her English is so low. I also learned that she lives with her grandparents, not her parents. Her parents still live in Mexico. They basically gave her up to the grandmother so that C--- could attend school in the US. C---'s grandmother (who C--- calls "mom") said that they are trying to help her, but that they don't know any English. I tried to reassure the grandmother that numbers are numbers and words are words. If they do all they can to help her in Spanish, I'll do all I can to transfer that understanding to English.
(In fact, I ended up reassuring a LOT of parents that same thing. It makes me curious - what are the kindergarten teachers saying? Are they telling the parents not to support the children's learning in Spanish? At this point, I have so many students who still don't know the numbers 1 through 20. I don't care if they know them in English or Spanish or any other language - conceptual understanding is conceptual understanding.)
My biggest shock was L---. L--- tells me about his mother a lot. I've never seen her before, but L--- talks about her being pregnant or something along those lines, so I assumed she was just staying home for that reason. It turns out that actually, she is dead. She died three or four years ago, I think with complications from the birth of a younger sibling. (And this is where I wish my "conversational" Spanish was stronger.) The father told me all this in front of L---, so it's not a secret. But, the father also said (again, in front of the child) that L--- doesn't really understand, that L--- thinks she is just in Mexico or something like that. It would have been nice to know this a bit earlier, especially since the mother is a daily topic of conversation for L---. Now I'm looking around to see if there is any therapist or counselor who can talk to L--- about this. At my school, the school psychologist doesn't work with children - all he does is test. But maybe he knows of an outside organization that does free child therapy...
I also love conferences because they help me make a point. People always complain about the apathy of parents. That "parents these days don't care anymore." Or that, "'THOSE' parents don't care." Despite the fact that I work in an "inner city" school, that my students all come from Spanish-speaking homes (and are English language learners), that most of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, that most of the students are first or second generation immigrants - despite all that, the families come (in full force!) and they care, and they want to help. I had 96% of my students come to conferences. I am missing one student. I still plan on calling the parent and reminding them to come in. My goal is 100% attendance. I've done it before, and I can do it again.