School Conference Time

Here in Oregon, it’s parent/teacher conference time, which, as every parent and every teacher knows is the very most delightful time of the year.

It’s a time free from pressure and angst.

It’s a time we all come together to celebrate our collective successes and pat ourselves on the back and feel uplifted by our communities and like we’re not alone.



For some of us.

Aaannnnddd… not so much for others.

I had coffee this week with a friend. And, um, that stuff up there? That wasn’t so much her experience. And after we met together – a meeting full of truth-telling and camaraderie about navigating education for our kids – she sent me this:

I appreciate your insight about kids and learning and struggles in school. It seems like everyone’s kids are wonderful readers and mathematicians and exceeding in every way possible — judging from Facebook — and it’s good to know there are others struggling, too, if only so I don’t feel so alone in this. As I wade through the FB posts that appear about how well kids are doing at school, which happened a lot on my page last week because of school conferences, I was inclined to post: “Celebrating because my kid is having behavior problems!” and “Love that my kid had the lowest reading score in all the second grade!” just to see how people might respond.

Now, of course she didn’t post those things on Facebook, because we mamas never, in any way, want to discourage our kids or paint them in an unfavorable light. We walk an incredibly tight rope, trying to always be an encouragement to our kids but also rather desperate for a place to voice our frustrations and share our fears and wonder whether our kids are OK even if we’re the family who failed to find an available house in Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average.

Lately, I find myself having more and more of these conversations. I adore them for their authenticity, and they trouble me because I’m beginning to understand how very isolated parents of imperfect children feel.

“Hey, Mom,” Aden beckoned me to the table, “check this out!”

I wandered over to see Aden with her progress report spread out in front of her, and my heart sunk. In the fourth grade now, she’s getting letter grades. And letter grades for kids who are on Individualized Education Plans – grades that are necessarily marked on whether or not a kid meeting grade level standards – mean a lot of D’s and F’s. Since those don’t mark whether or not she’s making progress (she is!), I thought I’d just hide the report from her lest she use letters to mark her self-worth or become discouraged. But my table-cleaning-off skills leave a LOT to be desired, and she found a paper with her name on it and read it.

“Oh, crap,” I thought to myself.

“Oh, look at that!” I said aloud.

“Hang on, Mom,” Aden said. “I’m going to get a pencil!” She bounced to the pencil drawer with enthusiasm and back to the table where she sat down and began to count.

“One, two, three, four – 4 A’s, Mom!” She looked up at me and grinned.

I smiled back. What could I do?

“One, two, three – 3 B’s, Mom!”

“One, two, three, four, five – 5 C’s, Mom!” Aden was full of joy. My heart was rapidly sinking.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight – 8 D’s, Mom!” Her smile didn’t fade.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven – 11 F’s, Mom!” And she beamed at me, as happily as she did with her A’s and her B’s. “I sure do know my letters and numbers, don’t I, Mom?” she asked, thrilled by her success.

“Yep, Aden. You sure do! And I am so proud of you.”


Kids, you guys!

They’re so incredibly complex and different from each other, and they each bring such unique challenges. It’s just that, with school, they’re graded, and that is a hard, hard thing for a mama to take – and a hard thing for a teacher to serve up – when a kid isn’t meeting the standard.

There are times I wish my kids weren’t graded at all. And there are times I wish they were graded on everything so they’d have a much better, more comprehensive picture of themselves, especially when academics or behavior are hard for them, because then they’d see that they’re also very, very good at things – at social skills, or building robots, or being compassionate, or surviving and overcoming, or choosing joy and being resilient – many of which turn out to be even more important than grades in the long run.

Especially robot-building. That’s a life skill, baby!

Our lives are a blend. They’re a process. And they’re full of progress which can be such a slowly opening flower as to be impossible to recognize except in retrospect.


I’d love to have this conversation with all of you because I believe in the collective wisdom of the Mama Whole. Kind of like the Borg, except with a lot more coffee and a lot less assimilating.

In light of school conferences and your child’s academic success, how are you? Happy? Sad? Isolated? Fulfilled?

And do you feel free to talk about success and failure in equal measure? 

What do you think?

Do share.


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29 responses to “School Conference Time”

  1. We had a conference with my daughter’s kindergarten teacher and the school guidance counselor a few weeks ago to request that they start some interventions with her due to some behavioral problems. They agree that she is smart, but her behavior often gets in the way of her learning. We all agreed that it would be best for her to repeat kindergarten, so today I mailed a letter to the principal requesting that they retain her. It seems like everyone else’s 5 and 6 year olds are gifted and reading at college level while doing 12th grade math. I’m so tired of reading posts on parenting sites that blame parents for all of a child’s behavioral issues. My husband and I provide a loving home and we discipline our daughter and don’t let her get away with things but she continues to challenge us.

    So, I now feel the need to brag about my daughter. Today ended the last full week of the school year (just 3 half days next week) and my daughter’s biggest success is that she stayed on green every day this week (that’s 5 whole days – we usually have at least two days on yellow and sometimes red). This is the first time that she’s done this all school year and we’ll be celebrating her huge accomplishment this weekend! We take what we can get when get it. 🙂

  2. And I also received this comment privately, which the author (a parent of adult kids now) agreed to allow me to post anonymously, as well. This breaks my heart and points out SO VERY CLEARLY why talking about imperfections is so important:

    I appreciated your post today but still feel that I must stay anonymous.

    When raising our kids I really felt that only perfection was acceptable due to family tradition and pressures of overly critical church “families”.

    I still have never discussed these struggles with anyone.

    Sad, huh?

  3. I received this comment via email, and the author gave me permission to post it anonymously. I think it adds something to this conversation that’s helpful to consider:

    Soooo, I have been thinking and pondering your recent posts, about mothering/school conferences/etc. I haven’t felt like I could comment on the blog and maybe by the end you’ll see why.

    And I guess I want to comment somehow on the other end of the spectrum. The side where people start to think that you think your smart child is “so super special” because you have to advocate for them to be appropriately challenged. The side where you feel you have to defend yourself when people say “I thought you had to be 5 by Sept 1 for kindergarten?” followed by “oh, I see, well do you really think she’s ready?”

    This happened to me at gymnastics this summer: a mom had just complimented Jane for her poise and balance, then assumed she was five and starting kindergarten, then was shocked when I explained that she was four and starting kindergarten, and challenged my decisions.

    It seems that you are allowed to think your kids are above average but not more than one standard deviation above the mean. Then you are just conceited and have an over-inflated sense of your child’s specialness. (Note: it will not matter that you have test scores to help you advocate for your child. The very fact you had them tested will probably prove that you think your kids are better than other kids.)

    What am I trying to say here? That I wish we could all agree that we, as parents, are only trying to provide appropriate challenges for where our kids are in their lives (academically, socially, physically, emotionally) and trying to help them learn to overcome the challenges as they come. And that it does not matter if your kid and my kid are not facing the same challenges at the same time.

    Parents should all be on the same team with other parents, not requiring them to “prove” that what each set of parents believes is the right course really is the right course, and not feeling threatened when we perceive that someone else’s child is “more advanced” in some area. That we could teach our kids and each other that the only person’s success that matters is your own, comparing all you have accomplished to where you started, not comparing yourself to someone else (or your kid to someone else’s kid).

  4. I think the idea about YOU giving out a report card with grades for all your kids’ great qualities – not English, maths and science, but joy and robot-building (BBT!) and so forth – is a BRILLIANT idea. Those things are so important. And isn’t Aden a gorgeous girl? You must be SO proud of her. Clever girl. May she retain that confidence of spirit. Having been a special ed teacher and also a music teacher, I’ve had kids in my class who were never going to get As but the delight when they got anything at all… such an achievement. That’s the important thing, in the end, I think. Sending lots of love and support and encouragement xxx

  5. To answer your questions, I would say that I feel sad and isolated. I also feel equally comfortable sharing successes as I do failures, though I’ll point out that talking about the failures makes people very uncomfortable. My oldest has social and behavioral issues, rather than academic issues, so I also agree with the idea that success in the social world is vastly more important than academics. I am sad that my school doesn’t see that.

    I am isolated when I hear people complaining about a child’s behavior and blaming it on the parents or commenting that they don’t want their kid in a class with a problem kid. I don’t know how to stick up for my own son (and my own parenting) without sounding defensive. The fact is, unless you have a child with a disability, you don’t know what it’s like and you can only judge by what you know. Parents of typical children set expectations for their child and they comply….but all kids aren’t like that. I know, because I have two typical children and one that’s not.

    I get your Five Kids in my email and enjoy reading all of them – thank you! I am only commenting today because this school stuff has me in a funk. We are working on our third IEP meeting next week (I brought cookies to the last one!), so thanks for your periodic inspirations.

    • Thank you, thank you for sharing your perspective, Melissa. Gosh, I SO GET IT when you said, “I don’t know how to stick up for my own son (and my own parenting) without sounding defensive.” I have felt that and felt that, and I’m grateful you put words to it.

      Sending you love and hope for this 3rd IEP meeting,

  6. So many things and where to start?! First off, I love how honest you are in your writing because it makes the rest of us feel that it is okay to talk/post about our not so perfect kids too! So you keep posting and I will keep posting, okay?
    Our 5 kids are as different as night and day, each one. #1 can do all of the work while standing on her head but does she WANT to? That is her question. As a freshman this year we have gone over and over again that these grades “count” and that she is limiting herself by not doing the best she can but we can’t do it for her. I look at her and see the “Yada Yada Yada” written all over her face when we have this conversation. I continue to push and she squeaked out C’s and above first semester which I am totally fine with, if I know it is her best work (but it wasn’t). We will see how second semester turns out.
    Kid #2 does do his work while standing on his head as he is a competitive gymnast and knows that to get into Stanford (his school of choice), his grades have to be stellar. No need to tell this 7th grader to get on it. By the time you think to tell him, he has done it and scored an A doing it. Just the way he is – very self motivated.
    We have discussed kid #3 with his expressive/receptive language disorder and while that all seems to be cleared up on the academic side, his social skills and behaviors are that of a child a year or so younger than what he really is. So, we get lots of notes home like “he was singing in the bathroom” (he sings while he poops) or “he hopped down the hall like a frog and wouldn’t stay in line” or “he sat for an hour and wrote only one sentence in his journal” – so goes the life of an immature 1st grader. We are confident that he will “grow” out of most of this and continue to work on other things at home.
    The twins, kids #4 and #5 are just leaving preschool and it has yet to be seen how they will fare in the big bad land of elementary but I have my suspicions that #4 will be a lot like #1 and #5 will be a lot like #2. And so it goes.
    What I have learned is that so much is not in my control and that a little love goes a long way and a lotta love goes even further. I read Max Lucado’s “You are Special” book this morning to one of the twins and just broke down crying when I got to the part where the creator says that he is the only one whose opinion matters and He thinks you are special! I think we tend to lose sight of this a lot in our parenting. We need to concentrate more on that and if you believe that the “stickers won’t stick” so to speak. Keep on lovin’ ’em like you do and keep on posting! We love ya! Ang

    • Angela, I LOVE THIS.

      My kids are this different from each other, too. I still remember my friend with 7 kids saying “I always thought that only 2 things could be polar opposites, but now that I have 7, I realize they can all be opposite from each other.” I SO GET IT NOW.

      Also, this? “So, we get lots of notes home like “he was singing in the bathroom” or “he hopped down the hall like a frog and wouldn’t stay in line”” UM, YES! So, so true.

  7. Did she really have 31 different grades? Holy cow! I think I remember getting 8 at one point, and I thought that was too many. That’s awesome that she isn’t fazed by “low” letter grades (which *are* stupid since they don’t show progress and *that’s* what’s important).

    Why not write your own family report cards? Then you really can grade your kids on “social skills, or building robots, or being compassionate, or surviving and overcoming, or choosing joy and being resilient”. And Mama, you get a T for being Totally Awesome. 🙂

    • YES! 31+ grades, actually. There’s no one “reading” grade anymore, for example, which is actually rather helpful. It’s broken down into parts… comprehension, words per minute, articulation, vocabulary, etc.

      LOVE the idea of our own report cards!

  8. I am THAT parent, who hasn’t attended a parent teacher conference since my child was in 6th grade…why?! Well, it’s complicated. They aren’t ever at convenient times, dates, locations, I work. I travel. I’m tired. I do converse with the school on a regular basis – with an ADHD kid & spouse there is always something. This year is her first year of high school; and our new challenge is getting her to actually go to class. The school does not have ‘open’ campus; yet my child simply walks outside & skips class. I get an email, phone call (5:09pm daily) telling me which class periods she missed. I have also been summoned to TRUANCY court.YIKES! So far, we’ve been there 3 times. Yes, monthly truancy court. Now I get the privelege of taking her to community service work group bright & early Sat/Sun until she completes 24hrs. Oh, the joys! 6 more weeks of school; 2 more visits to court; then summer school and a re-peat of 9th grade. Did I say I’m tired? Soooo very tired. Maybe after the community service work crew tortures her she might finally ‘get it’ but somehow I’m thinking it’s going to be a different, alternative school next year.

    • Mary, I kept reading thinking “she must be SO TIRED” and then you said it. That is a lot. A lot a lot. Sending you a huge heaping of mama solidarity and the strength to bend with the winds. I love that you’re looking at alternative – those can be life-giving to kids for whom the regular system doesn’t work.

  9. I think parents need to be open to the advice of their children’s teachers more often. I didn’t learn how to read until the summer after 2nd grade, much later than my classmates. My teachers addressed the problem with my parents, who worked more with me, had me in a special reading group in school, and I attended a few weeks of summer school. Even as a 2nd grader I knew it wasn’t something that everyone else did and I didn’t want to go. But my parents pushed me and during that period the “light switch” was turned on and I could read. By the start of third grade I didn’t need any of the specialized help.

    Now I’m a 24 year old with a bachelors from a top state school and in my 3rd year of a PhD program in developmental psychology.

    Never stop pushing. Never stop loving.

  10. My parent teacher conferences are a thing of the past but it is still difficult to remember that time in our family’s life. One kid flying through with nary a struggle and the other struggling for every good mark, which was few and far between. I hated it. Two happy children, bright as buttons. One diminished by school and the other untouched except by the trials and tribulations of just being there (you know the “friends’ thing?).
    I loved summer and so did the children but we all started melting down at the end when it was time to go get new school clothes and supplies. Sucked the life out of us, it did. Even now, one loves to learn but hates the process if it seems too much like normal school. Neither graduated in a ‘normal’ way from high school but both are very successful as people, parents, employees. I am proud of them both and had I to do it over again, I would find a way to keep them by my side or my husband’s and we would find a better way.
    Grandchildren are now in the picture and I want to do everything I can to encourage them as little people, not based on how they ‘perform’ in school but just because they are precious and valuable just the way they are.
    Happy, sad, isolated? yup we’ve experienced it: IEP, repeated grades, “dropping out of school”. So glad those experiences are behind us and not what dominates our grown kid’s lives. Life after school…………ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh no grades!

    • Thank you thank you for chiming in with the perspective of a nontraditional education approach and telling us about your kids who are successful adults… and for doing it with such graciousness and compassion to we mamas who are currently here!

  11. Back when my oldest was in grade school, they had a conference with all the parents. Then, between her and her little sister, they stopped that. Now its just the kids that are below “average”. I didn’t know they stopped that because my second child always had conferences. So, when my third child got to school (12 years between 2 and 3) she never had conferences. I feel fortunate that I haven’t had to “worry” about the parent teacher conference with number 3. My attitude toward conferences with number two was that I looked forward to hearing how I could help her. My daughter’s teacher was surprised at how well I took the news of her needing extra help. She said a lot of parents take is personally when their child is falling behind. Well, now she is about to graduate high school, I hope. Always falling behind but not enough to be held back. She struggled from day one, with keeping up to grade level. I feel she got lost in the shuffle because she wasn’t far enough behind to get the extra help. For them (the school people) C’s and D’s were okay. And she could always make up her F’s in summer school. Well this is it, no more summer school. She has to pass or she doesn’t graduate. I can’t wait till June 7th! With all that being said, my advice is to always keep an open mind. The kids won’t freak if you don’t. And now looking back, I don’t know if holding her back a grade would have made any difference. Who knows what the right answer is? We love them no matter what and that’s all that matters right? I think we should always tell our kids how wonderful they are. Build their self esteem as much as possible so they have some left when society is done with them. I found that everyone is different and learns on different levels. Our grading system is what it is. And you know how each of your children learn so you can take what you know from the system and apply it to your child. Its only a guide line right? Comparing to others isn’t fair to anyone. Everything came so easy to my oldest. She hardly worked for her straight A’s. While my second child works her butt off for C’s. I’m more proud of her hard work than something that would come so easy. Its all temporary and we move on to our next phase is life. This too shall pass.

    • “I think we should always tell our kids how wonderful they are. Build their self esteem as much as possible so they have some left when society is done with them.”

      I agree!

      And also, “Comparing to others isn’t fair to anyone.” THIS? YES! I’ve received a couple of comments from parents of kids who are gifted academically, and they feel SO SIMILARLY, it’s striking… isolated, a rejection of comparison, etc. I’m working up a post on it even now. Thanks for pointing this out.

  12. My daughter’s school doesn’t do standard conferences. Boggles my mind. Conferences only happen to address specific concerns–which I’ve been part of twice this year. 😛

    What is most frustrating and puzzling for me and my husband is that her joy and excitement for school was not there this year–even in anticipation of the year–the way it had been for the previous two. We think that may be part of her problem this year, but we can’t figure out the cause. We also can’t figure out how to make a lasting change.

    • Ah, yes. This is SO FAMILIAR to me, Terri. Aden went through three years of this lack of joy in school. Ian went through one year of it. His was very dramatic and resulted in a school and program change which has been just right for him. Aden’s wasn’t so dramatic, but until she make a couple of very special friends, there wasn’t resolution. This was really parenting by Braille for me! I wasn’t sure we were getting Aden’s school choices right, but I was doing the best I could and praying it would all work out with a few Hail, Mary’s thrown in for good measure.

      Hoping with to find solutions for a great situation for her!

  13. Conference time was fine because we went to Disneyland and Sea World and Legoland and the Zoo instead of going to conferences this year. Yay us! My kids are average. No pressure on either side–neither over-achieving and under-achieving academically. So it was all fine.

    But what I really want to say is . . . If Aden were getting graded on the ways she brings joy and love and laughter to my life on a regular basis she’d get a big A+++++++. I love your kids. They’re all wonderful and precious!

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