Unexpected Parent Meetings

Unexpected parent meetings can teach us new things about our students, their families, and ourselves.

Last week I had an unexpected parent meeting. Normally I am forewarned when a parent wants to meet with me. This time around, an aide from another classroom came to watch my students while I went upstairs to the meeting. This is usually not a good sign.

When all was said and done, the meeting went fine. Initially I was baffled when the parent started laying out his concern. The student in question was quiet, respectful, and did fine work. I even went down and retrieved the project she had just finished. It wasn’t until he showed me photos on his phone that I understood the issue: he was talking about a painting that had been completed 3-4 months ago that she just received back!

My Offense

Yikes! I was being asked to remember something I said to one of my 480 students about her project 3-4 months ago! The parent didn’t like that I called attention to something that wasn’t done well in her artwork. She felt bad about herself and thought I should have said something privately to her.

At the beginning of class, I review the goals posted on my white board. These are step-by-step instructions so, regardless of where a student is in the project life cycle, there are guideposts moving everyone forward. When I call students up to get their work, I often address technical issues that are showing up so everyone in class benefits. I use two or three students’ work to discuss what is happening and what needs to be done to fix the common issues.

When I first do this in the beginning of the year, I will get one or two students reacting negatively. I tell them that feedback is something everyone will be getting throughout their life when they begin working. (Case in point: I was getting feedback from this parent!)

So, this parent’s issue all came down to criticism or what I refer to as feedback. When discussing their children’s work, parents often find it challenging to remain objective. Understandable, right? Yet, at two different points in our conversation, my student’s dad intimated that regardless of what I had to say, he believed his 8-year old daughter. Those turning points in any conversation are hard.

Navigating a Storm

My blog is read by many different types of folks and while the underlying principles of good communication cross many different types of relationships, I’m going to contextualize the following recommendations to my recent parent meeting. Feel free to add your comments at the end of this post!

Parents need to be heard.

I wanted to make sure that this parent had his say. I didn’t argue with him primarily because he made it clear that he believed his daughter and not me. So, while I disagreed with the foundation of his argument, I wanted him to advocate for his child. Plus, I needed to hear what he had to say. I’m not perfect.

Parents need to be educated about the art-making process.

I’ve proved it time and time again during parent-teacher conferences: Art Teachers should not assume parents understand their job, how many kids we teach, or how often we see them. Oftentimes, parents have a jaded understanding of what art class looks like. That perception usually centers around having fun talking to friends while making a craft-like project.

Newsletters (whether paper or email) and blogs can be important tools that educate parents about what happens in the art studio.

Students (yes, all ages!) need to understand you need them to talk to you.

During this meeting, the parent told me his daughter felt bad about herself because of my criticism and that my student wished I would have said something privately to her. I let the parent know that I conference with students throughout the class period; however, sometimes art-related technical issues are best addressed class-wide because it is happening in many students’ work. Doing mini-lessons that address every technical issue is not practical given a 43-minute time period. No one would get to working on their art.

I told my student that she has a responsibility to speak to me when something is said she doesn’t understand or is hurt by. To help bridge her understanding, I reminded her of what often happens on the playground (teachers in my school do lunch duty): if kids don’t let a teacher know that something has happened, we can’t solve the problem. As such, when things are left unsaid, confusion and hurt feelings can follow.

Children need to start early learning how to communicate their thoughts and feelings, and art class can facilitate that learning.

Yes, I can hear you saying: “Oh, but so-and-so is shy.” Perhaps, but that is an excuse, not a explanation. I was shy as a child (and, in new situations I still am). I needed to be nurtured through the learning process of expressing myself because it would have helped me avoid difficulties later in life.

Does that mean every kid needs to become this gregarious, politician-in-the-making? Of course not. My 8 year old student is shy. Ironically, though, she’s not like that on the playground or around her friends. So this is not a fixed state for her. She can, of her own choosing, assert herself.

My point? Education is a two-way conversation at times, and addressing areas within student art work is one way kids can learn to participate in discussions because what they are making is personal, they care about it. Additionally, art criticism notes areas needing improvement and those that are done well. At least, in my class it does. Strategies for fixing what needs improvement are keys to successful education.

My Lessons Learned

Personal interactions are always important. They can help you refine your practice, highlight areas where you need to grow, and remind you of the ways you have grown both personally and professionally. What did this meeting do for me?

Am I going to be changing my practice of using student work to highlight common technical issues that are appearing in class?

No, receiving feedback is a life skill. I teach 480 students and taking the time to reproduce each technical issue a student comes up with is not practical given a 43-minute class period. Therefore, I will cover basic technical issues during my class-wide demonstration and then address any additional issues that come up during the life cycle of an assignment on a per class basis.

What I will be changing is highlighting areas that are done well and making sure my students hear that. Sadly, I think once you comment on one area needing improvement it becomes ALL about that one area.

Will I make the process of receiving feedback of greater importance at the beginning of the year?

Kid’s feelings are important and when you teach hundreds of students in a week, the push to get things accomplished can overshadow the fact that they are still kids (yes, even the 18 year olds!). Deepening learning in giving and receiving feedback is an important life skill that needs to be taught early. Plus, this process also gives them a language to reflect in a deeper way on their own work.

Unexpected parent meetings can teach us new things about our students, their families, and ourselves. As an educator, I need to always be mindful that I am also on a journey of learning.

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