Every teacher goes to their fair share of parent/teacher conferences. There are those that are very in and out, and then there are those that feel like they gut you. They are the ones that you sit or stand there and know that if something doesn’t change with this child their road might end soon. And you’re standing there thinking how much you want to shake that child and tell them LOOK AT ALL THESE PEOPLE WHO CARE ABOUT YOU! A large part of the heavy feeling for me during these particular meetings is the look and reaction of the parent. They are frustrated, tired, angry, sad, but most of all just looking for an answer to keeping their child on point in school and on a path to doing something meaningful with their life. And from that develops the parent promise.
Whenever I think about promises made to parents, I have a flashback to my first parent promise. And it’s one of the hardest memories in my recent years that I recall. During my time teaching summer school in Tulsa, I had a student named Brett. Brett was a bit of an introverted student at first and seemed very disinterested in everything, so when parent phone calls happened at the beginning of the summer, I was interested in talking to his dad. Dad explained to me about Brett’s social anxiety and how he had been taken out of school to be home-schooled for awhile but then had to return to finish in public school. He explained how Brett is a very smart student, but sits in the back of his classes forgotten and not pushed by his teachers he had previously had. As a wide-eyed new teacher, I eagerly drank in everything he was saying and was quick to make a big declarative promise that I would not be like those other teachers. I excitedly told him how I would not be like Brett’s other teachers and that I would challenge Brett and push his capabilities forward. I was certainly a wide-eyed new teacher.
Fast forward five weeks later, and I am sitting in my last reflection session of the summer. It’s a more intimate setting so we can sit and reflect more personally on three types of students: the one who we felt we had put on a different life trajectory, the one we felt we had helped close the gap for, and the one we felt had slipped through the cracks. As I started reflecting, I thought about the first two students and felt momentary joy at the thought of what the summer had accomplished for them. But then I came to the last category and my mind became consumed by thoughts of Brett. He was my one who had slipped through the cracks. And when it came my turn, he was the only one I could share. Tears welled up in my eyes and I let them fall as I retold the story of the promise I had made to Brett’s father. Then I paused and said that at the time I thought the promise would be easy, but then all the weight of the students who I felt really needed me because they were so far behind, spelling everything wrong or barely speaking or writing English, and I got so overwhelmed by their immediate needs that summer school came to an end and I–just like all his other teachers before me–had let Brett sit in the back of the class and had not pushed him. I had boldly told Brett’s father I would be different, and I had not kept my promise. And that still sticks with me.
I made my own self-promise after that summer. I promised myself that I would always remember that parents entrust their children to my care every day that they send them to school, and when I made those promises in the future, I would choose my words carefully and I would not let them down as long as I could prevent it. So I find myself again making those promises to parents that I will make sure their child does not fail freshman year, promise that I will get them to behave better, promise to sit with them and do all their major projects so they don’t fail any of their classes. And those parents believe, and I cannot take that faith lightly. I’m working towards keeping every last one of those promises. Even though I failed to keep my promise to Brett’s father, I use that memory to spur me on in not letting that happen again.