Tools of Transfer: Conferences

Ah the time-honored tradition: Parent-Teacher Conferences. A time for students to ‘be placed in the hot seat’ in front of their parents and receive judgement; it’s like Christmas except that ‘Santa’ actually answers the question of have they been naughty or nice? Like many of you, I have just finished this year’s conferences and – per usual – learned a lot from them that I would like to remember for the next round of conferences I attend. Perhaps you will learn from my ponderings or be able to add your own lessons and heuristics.

Let’s pull a Sinek and start with why. Why do we do parent-teacher conferences, or student-led conferences as they are called in my school? Well, of course they add another layer of accountability for student behaviors and give us the opportunity to try to get parents on the same page with us so as to reinforce our messages and support students from home. However, they are also another of our ‘Educator’s Tools of Transfer;’ they serve (hopefully) as a way to convey (or make explicit) some of the lessons in the full-time, informal school we call ‘life.’ There is, of course, no curriculum for this vastly important informal school, and conferences are the small amount of time that we, as educators, get to try to teach some of those lessons in a one-on-one, personalized setting. These lessons include teaching students how to be self-reflective; to set goals and ‘upgrade their problems;’ and to recognize the cause-and-effect, chicken-and-egg nature of their motivations and actions (or should I say actions and motivations?). To me, this is vastly important, and we’d better do our homework in order to be able to capitalize upon these magical moments to create perspective expansion.

To begin with, I find it important to prepare students for their conferences – in this regard I quite like the Expeditionary model of ‘student-led’ conferences in which the student has some ownership over the direction in which the conference will go. In our case, this means that students are given a packet of prompts through which they will prepare for their conference. This ensures that scaffolding needs have been met, but that students can still begin the conversation and (hopefully) drive it for the duration of the meeting. What I mean by scaffolding, in this specific instance, is that without the following framework, students tend to just jump straight into either a) grades or b) anything else they can discuss to avoid talking about grades. Thus, our framework asks students to first take a step back and address some broader reflections on their life experience at the moment using the following notecatcher:
Screenshot 2019-10-14 at 6.17.53 PM

The reason for this type of reflection is that we tend to get caught in a loop where, if a student isn’t doing their work, we say ‘well, in order to succeed, you have to start doing your work… here are some strategies that I want you to use in order to complete your work: [planner, office hours, mentor program, etc].’ However, if one of these items for reflection stands out, we may have an underlying cause for the student’s academic performance that needs to be addressed! We are lucky this year in that most students feel safe in our school. However, even just today I had some catches like this: a student in my crew wrote (word-for-word) on her reflection sheet “Respected: I don’t feel Respected, but neither do I respect back but How ebe am i supposed to act.” and “Included: Sometimes, but outsider because all the teachers look at me wrong, and disappointed.” In the case of this student, this reflection directly captured a root cause for her current (low) engagement in her classes. We could have sat around going through her performance in each individual class, telling her she simply has to do her homework, turn in projects, study for tests, and stay in the classroom rather than leaving for the bathroom and wandering the halls, missing notes and practice… and nothing would have changed! Instead, we got to do a bit of analysis of her use of mental energy (as well as leverage our relationship a bit by making fun of her):

“Isn’t this hilarious? I mean, look at how much of a teenager you are being! You want to be respected but freely admit that you don’t respect back! [luckily this made her smile] But on a serious note, doesn’t it seem like you are using a ton of your mental energy trying to resist just doing what you know you have to do? Like, if you just decided to use that same energy to just begin doing your work or taking notes, you’d probably do better and not feel this internal struggle to ‘get your way,’ which seems to never have worked for you right? And what’s more, what you are resisting is people who want you to become an even more capable and talented person who can literally do anything she wants to in this life. Talk about teenager!”

From there, we were able to try to bring this subconscious resistance to the front of her mind by adding this idea to her Training Plan in the form of the question: Did I use mental energy today resisting just doing my work (leading to me feeling worse about my class performance)? I don’t know if this will work for her or not… but it certainly feels like it stands a better chance than telling her again she’s got to do her work.

As you can tell, the idea of ‘underlying problems’ is of course intriguing to me. All underlying problems are not captured by our short notecatcher, and this is where I claim that we, as educators, have to be well-studied and versed in this informal school we call life. We have to be able to analyze quickly and think on our feet. I am very much a beginner in this process, but let me share a couple of examples from today when the student had no red flags on their notecatcher, but was still struggling in classes.

To begin, I think it’s important to recognize that everyone has problems, and the point of this thing we call school and life is to solve our problems, to upgrade to new, better problems. So let’s start with a student who has great problems. Thomas is a Senior who has been pushing himself to get better at just about anything that presents the opportunity since his freshman year – he’s constantly pushing himself during fitness to run a faster mile, a couple days a week he’s in the gym after school shooting free throws, and last year he studied for the SAT completely on his own (well, with only my advice and direction on where to start/go next after he would complete practice activities) and ended up getting a 1450. His current ‘goal’ (which he is completing exceedingly well) is to ‘stay humble’ and push himself further by forgetting about anything he’s accomplished so far. “If you realize that where you are right now really isn’t that impressive,” he told me during his conference, “you can keep expanding your knowledge until you actually begin to know a little bit of something. Everything covered in high school… it’s interesting, but it’s known. The world’s problems are yet to be solved, and that takes real understanding.” Now, before I get to his ‘problems,’ I didn’t yet mention that he did not start off his conference with this topic; he started by talking about how last year in Biology, they studied the Microbiome and he started to realize how what we eat affects every part of our lives. This year, he has been learning how to cook in order to support his family’s ‘gut health.’ His mom nodded and said in her broken English “Yes, it’s very nice because I get to enjoy the cooking, but sometimes he requests that I buy something from the store and he is very picky that I get the correct item!” It wasn’t an academic topic, it was just a topic that he was excited about and want to make sure he mentioned how gratifying it’s been to learn – so yes, this kid is amazing in a completely self-understated way.

His ‘problem,’ was strategies for applying to college. He decided that he wants to make a financially prudent decision and, accordingly, is only looking at in-state schools and spending more time applying to scholarships. The question, though, was that apparently his top school (which is very selective) has an application option, where you can choose to apply with or without an essay. He felt like maybe he should take the option to apply without an essay, but wanted to know what I thought was better for him. “THOMAS! You are going to make my head explode! Did you listen to yourself so far? You are MORE than a 4.0 / 1450 – a lot more! The essay is your chance to show how different and unique you are!”

Now, I told this story partially to highlight that even the most motivated students are still struggling with big life decisions, but also to contrast with a student who came later on – my most challenging analysis of underlying causes. Mike is, in some ways, very similar to Thomas… it’s almost like they are made of the same mold: he is bright, enjoys pondering deep questions, and also has parents who immigrated to the U.S. and speak with thick accents that clearly convey their passion and excitement for the prospects of education. Still, Mike doesn’t do his homework and misses projects; however, he is able to ace a few quizzes here and there, and his grades turn out low overall, but mostly passing. He came in to his conference, sat down, and began an elegant speech to his parents:
“As you both know, we often start these Student-Led Conferences discussing ‘Stars and Steps;’ however, this year because of a shortage in stars we are going to be focused on discussing steps. This, however, is no cause for concern…” He began to dive down the rabbit-hole, preparing to expertly go through his performance in each class, one-by-one, and provide steps that he was ‘going to take’ to improve his grade in each class. He sounded great, and convincing… so I had to stop him there.

“No,” I said, garnering a confused look from him, “no… this isn’t how it’s going to go. We are going to stop right there. Because this is stupid, and you know you aren’t going to do these things. How many years in a row have you convinced your parents that you are going to improve, and then done the same thing for the rest of the year?” His parents eyebrows shot up and they began to pensively nod, as if it was the first time they were realizing this act seemed familiar.

“You are a curious student, and your intellectual capacities are incredible. Why are you not pushing yourself to learn more, to exceed what you thought you were capable of?”
“I just don’t see the merit in school after a certain point in time,” he paused. All of us stayed silent. “Like, I know that education is incredibly important, probably the most important thing in our lives if we want to have a good future, but I just want to already be at the next level, thinking about topics that are deeper than we cover here.”

“I get it,” I said “I see you writing in your notebooks, and on the trip this year staring off into the distance writing by yourself while everyone else is hanging out chatting. I heard your friend Keith read what you wrote about the trip when you were too nervous to read it out loud to the group, and it was incredible writing. And so what I mean to say is that you have this strong belief in the value of education as a gateway to accomplishing what you want to with the rest of your life, but yet you don’t think the content is valuable to you right now, so it’s like you are waiting on a later date to get engaged. And what that means to me, my friend, is that you are focused on the end-goal.”

Everyone looked at me as if to say, ‘um… yes. So?’

Luckily, our High School team assigned one of the Summer Reads this year to be Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow – I saw Mike reading it on our trip. Furthermore, I read some of Mark Manson’s Subtle Art (with lots of editing) to my crew on our trip. And finally, I am a fan of James Clear and the science of habit formation.

“So…” I said, “your path forward is to abandon goals completely. You have read Flow, I’ve read you parts of other goal-setting texts. What we are dealing with in your case is a question of values. You can drone on about what you are going to do in each class forever, but what you need is to analyze what your values include… for example, you value being able to engage deeply in meaningful and challenging intellectual work, and if the work does not serve that purpose (end-goal), you feel it is not worth doing. Yet, you see no contradiction with this value when you play video games, which I know you do often, right?”

He nodded reluctantly.

“This is because video games serves another of your values – pleasure in the moment. But what you are forgetting is that human beings do not rise to the levels of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems [this is a James Clear statement that I use with our students often]. By valuing the end-goal of education, you are forgetting that it is the moment-to-moment process that actually gets you to the end goal. We don’t decide we are going to write a book and just do it by writing 14 hours a day for two weeks. We write a book by committing to writing for thirty minutes every single day, and at the end of three years we realize that our skills and habits have improved to the point that they will allow us to write a book. Our media outlets make us think that stuff like this just happens when it’s time, but we need to actually value the process, the systems that make us what we are. Let’s put it this way: you are the Dave Mustaine to Thomas’s Pete Best. Remember when I read that story on the trip? How Dave Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica early in his career, and he vowed that he would create a band better than Metallica. His new band sold millions of records and has adoring fans… but he made himself miserable by setting his value as ‘being better than Metallica.’ Pete Best, on the other hand, found new values in his family and playing music on a more local level, and has been happy ever since.

The reason I say this is because Thomas, who you know well and are friends with – for goodness sake you two decided to stay in the same tent for the whole 16-day trip (!) – has completely opposite values to you. He doesn’t care what he ends up doing… he just wants to improve himself at whatever it is he is doing in the moment. That worked well for him with consistent daily SAT practice last year, but he’s also using that same improvement mentality to learn how to cook this year!”

Accordingly, this analysis of underlying values caused me to both add a section to Mike’s training plan during our Crew sessions that focuses on an analysis of his values, and to create some ‘Life Lesson’ plans that make us become aware of our values and act on them. I’ll post these lessons to this site when I get a chance to test them further, but for now, I hope that this sort of an analysis at least begins to help students stop with the BS-ing and get down to buying-in to their education and taking ownership over their own lives.

I’ll share just two more examples, and try to make them a little less long-winded than the last ones. I have one student whose main concern seems to be that he’s always about three steps behind. He’s engaged, tries, but he just always seems to be the last to realize that everyone turned in their assignments within one minute after I said “turn in your assignments to the turn-in bin,” and it’s now been ten minutes and we are on to the next topic. His mother reported that he is this way at home… she has to constantly follow him around to keep him moving and on-task. He said that he always feels tired, because he doesn’t get ‘good’ sleep, and his mother confirmed that she makes the whole family go lights-out by no later than 9:30. Hmm! I asked two things: 1) do you feel tired after our daily fitness course? No, he said. 2) do you have a screen that you use within one hour of bedtime. Yes, he reported. We added both of these items to his Training Plan, with his mother agreeing to support him from home. I’ll report back how this goes.

Secondly (and lastly), I have one student who seems to be completely unengaged in math class and doesn’t care. In fact, she makes comments that are meant to show just how much she doesn’t care… to the point that I just want to say ‘why bother with you? I’m going to go help someone else.’ However, in getting to have a conference with her, I got the ability to catch her when she is not in math class – the place that makes her feel most inadequate and vulnerable. She told me that one of her goals is to maintain good relationships with all of her teachers (which she is clearly not doing), which gave me the chance to realize that although she didn’t have any red flags on her ‘root causes’ checklist, she is exhibiting classic ‘defensive’ techniques that some teens use. Instead of letting the content make her feel vulnerable, she puts up the defense of the content being stupid and not worth it. I told her this and asked her if she might be able to recognize that she’s doing this, and of course the funny thing that happens with teens happened: when not in the moment she was able to realize… oh yeah, I am self-sabotaging. “But I don’t know how to not act that way in the moment!” she said. Again, we set up a daily reflection question in her training plan that she will continue to refer back to during the year, and I hope it helps!

Well, those are my reflections! What happened in your conferences that you can reflect on, remind yourself about next year, and grow from?


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