Never Worry Alone - How to Approach Conferences

Never Worry Alone - How to Approach Conferences


“So what outcomes can we expect to see by the end of the next quarter?” I can still vividly remember this parent-student-teacher conference that did not end well. All the plans we had made during the conference and the relationships we had built came crashing down when a dad – famous and absurdly successful for questions like this – attempted to wrap up the conference for his seventh-grade daughter. She rolled her eyes, crossed her arms, turned her body away, and sighed heavily. “Quarterly outcomes” did not resonate with her.

The next few days at Mount Tamalpais School are filled with nearly 250 teacher-family conferences. And though none will end as poorly as this one, I thought I could share a few tips for conferences to avoid a similar outcome based on the hundreds I have led and thousands that I have supported. Teachers spend innumerable hours preparing – I live with a teacher and see just how much preparation they take. Perhaps these tips will help us all get the most out of the next few days.

Never Worry Alone

When I first brainstormed this piece, I wrote “we are on the same team.” One of my mentors shared an insight from Ned Hallowell’s book, When You Worry About the Child You Love. Hallowell writes, “Never worry alone.” At your conference you will find a team of teachers or an advisor who are deeply committed to your child’s thriving. If you have a concern or a worry, don’t be afraid to share it. We will do the same. Together we will work in time to find the answer, put in the proper supports, and help your child thrive. Your worry can be academic – I have had those about the love or lack thereof for reading. Your worry can be social – I have had those about whether my child is showing his full self. At MTS you have a team, don’t worry alone.

There is No Andon Cord in Educating a Child

Like all business school students, I learned about the Toyota Production System and the infamous Andon Cord. The idea is that when any worker on the assembly line in a Toyota plant sees a problem, they pull a red cord and the entire assembly line comes to a halt. Immediately all resources on the production line are dedicated to solving that one issue, whether it be a faulty tool or a part shortage. Once the problem is fixed, the assembly line starts up again. 

Teaching children and supporting their educational and social development bears little resemblance to a Toyota assembly line. Yes, we spot concerns and issues and we try to do so as early as possible. What we don’t do is stop the line until the problem is fixed. There is almost never a “fixed” in education. For some concerns we have strategies to help manage. We might intervene with some small group phonics instruction, use a checklist to assist burgeoning executive functioning, or suggest a student add a learning support period rather than a world language in the middle school. These strategies are not “fixes” as they are ways to manage a state that might be temporary – at some point the prefrontal cortex will kick in – or permanent – dyslexia does not go away. We don’t stop the production line of learning because a student is very shy and quiet – they might always be shy and quiet. 

During your conference, and after, we will work as a team (see above) to acknowledge, understand, and support the concerns that you as families and we as educators have. The production line of learning will continue and that concern might, in time, resolve. We might also, together, learn to better appreciate who our child and student is.

YOU Can’t Do It

While the seventh-grade student described in my intro was annoyed at her dad’s desire to “fix” her and leave with a clear set of KPIs, the other greatest mistake that I saw was middle school parents leaving with a set of tasks that they, the adults, were going to do. You, the parent, cannot attend office hours. You, the grandparent, cannot study twenty minutes a night for the five nights before the test. Ultimately the student has to choose to do the work to see the results. Yes, we can try our best to support the child, but we can’t do it.

Following in the wake of the disastrous conference described above, I created a template for all my middle school conferences centered around two questions. 1. What do you want to do differently in the next few months? and 2. How can we (your advisor and your family) help you? “Meet with teachers” was replaced with student: “Meet with Dave at 8:00 on Thursdays” and parents: “Get Andrew to school by 7:55 each day.” While not KPIs, we had plans. Most importantly, we had plans that the student had created. Middle schoolers want autonomy. OUr lower schoolers also need to be involved as they learn to ber learners. They also need support. And, we can’t do it all for them.

Our Promise

That same mentor who shared the advice “never worry alone” went on to write to me,

“I used to say that other than your blood relatives, there is no-one on earth more committed to your child’s thriving than the educators at this school. Think of us as your educational pediatrician—we will listen to you and together we partner for the growth and well-being of your child. Nothing is more important.” This could not be more true at MTS. The teachers you meet with in conferences care deeply about your child. Together we can help your child thrive; just don’t ask your thirteen your old about the metrics of her success!


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