Each semester we have an opportunity for procuring new insights. If all goes well, teachers become better acquainted with their students and parents with their children. Without attributing to our charges any malevolent design, neither teachers nor parents know them as fully as they might expect or wish. Even the best of students, owing to their immaturity, may be found to be one way with us and something else whilst apart. Even the most astute parent, and especially the most doting, are liable to blindness in the same way that great teachers are sometimes liable to the fancy that they are cognizant of some unique insight about the student’s true character. We can each be taken advantage of without the taker ever having meant to cause such mischief.
Each new term we try to tease out what the other knows or suspects in the hope that such knowledge will assist us in better playing our part – the one to parent and the other to teach. There is, in all of this, the desperate anticipation that technology, like e-mail and online grade books, will render our conversations together outmoded. These technologies do have the potential to change and even improve the nature of our conversations as long as we do not foolishly come to believe that technology is, as Max Frisch said, “the art of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” Believing that grades are the foremost concern or that technology is an appropriate substitute for conversation is wrongheaded. There is great falsity in believing that because one knows the grades, one knows the student.
Conversation between teachers and parents too often falls into desuetude. The sorts of discussions that would bring us closer to the real point of our meeting are not the sorts to which we are inured. We may wish to hear the opinions of others on any number of subjects, but we are preemptively contumacious when it comes to our parenting and the strengths and weaknesses of our teaching. Here, we see something like Mrs. Thrale’s description of Samuel Johnson to James Boswell: “Johnson’s conversation was by much too strong for a person accustomed to obsequiousness and flattery; it was mustard in a young child’s mouth.” We do not enjoy every exchange we have as parents and teachers, and while civility is integral, honest and forthright appraisals best serve our respective purposes. The notion that grades can tell us what only the child’s teachers can is dishonest, and the fretfulness over hypothetical grades indicative of une maladie sans maladie – a sort of academic hypochondria. A fixity on grades belies what is more important because it is less awkward than the conversations that ought to be had.
Parents, in moments of admirable honesty, will admit to being intimidated by the material covered in a class and thus avert themselves from asking the more important question that concern what is being taught. This, however, is what sets Ridgeview apart: the quality of its curriculum and of those teaching it. Aside from a brief discussion of what each sees on the part of the student, the one at home and the other at school, the conversation should turn to what is being taught, and whether it is interesting and important. While there are narrow souls and utter pragmatists who would say of this or that that it was unhelpful or uninteresting because it did not explicitly or overtly mold their children to some future and unknowable vocation, most who have chosen Ridgeview do not take so jaundiced a perspective. The conferences provide a prime opportunity to dig into the substance of what is being taught and with what enthusiasm it is being received. It also provides space to ask purposeful questions: Are they curious? Do they make efforts to keep abreast of worldly affairs? Are they preparing with any real seriousness or urgency to accept the mantle of adulthood, or are they preoccupied with the indulgences and minor dramas of adolescence? These are questions to which neither teacher nor parent has complete answers. We each require something from the other along with a common vision for what success should look like. Are we urging our charges to accept and overcome difficulties, and insisting that learning to do so will ultimately prove more valuable than the content of any single discipline? If teacher and parent are truly acting in concert for the benefit of the child, is it more important that they talk about grades or about the conversations each is having with the person who brought them together?
It is my contention that we spend too much of our brief time together discussing information that can be gleaned in more efficient ways and too little delving into the content that is displacing ignorance in our children’s minds. The material that will inform their greatest aspirations and guide their hearts should be the centerpiece of our discussions. While we all know that we must be practical in some aspects of our parenting, we seem to be at greater risk of losing sight of what humanizes our children than we are of our more practical considerations. What did our children speak to us about today? Was it of heroes, of history, of great inventions or great battles; of faraway lands, of politics, of poetry, of geometry, or triumphal discoveries? Or, was it of grades? The smallness of this last consideration may only be small when compared to the greatness of the topics we discuss, but it is still small. If we wish to inspire good grades, we should first inspire our children and our students to see these topics as worthy of inspiration, and that begins with us talking with one another in a way that signals to them that they are important.