Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I had Barak's first parent-teacher conference this week. Last week, when I was in New York, my friend Naomi tried to warn me. "Every time I walk in there, the teacher sits there and tells me about a kid I've never met or heard of."

Yeah. Well.

Apparently Barak's morohs are not so pleased with him. There are two. One was only moderately negative. The other one told me, "He doesn't finish his projects," in the same doom-laden tone of voice in which she told me he was hitting the other children and they were afraid of him.


First off, this is Barak. It's really, really hard for me to picture that. But I know that some kids are polar opposites behavior-wise at home and at school, so it's always possible. But... what? If he's been hitting kids, why has no one called me over the last three months?

The meeting was strange. It was supposed to be ten minutes, which is not enough to begin with, and I got less because the people who came before me were late and ran over but the people after me walked right in at their scheduled time. It was also strange because I had the vague impression that they weren't sure who Barak was--an impression strengthened when one of the teachers, when I asked a specific question, turned to the other, saying, "I don't know him that well." Um... hello, you should.

It wasn't malicious, she said, or at least she didn't think it was malicious. He's very deep, she said, and very bright and creative, and he likes pirates, and he's been pretending to be a pirate, and some of the other children have been scared. And one of them said that he hit her.

At the end of the meeting, I managed to overcome my shock and paralysis enough to ask some rational questions, among them, "How serious of an issue is this? I am not getting a clear picture of how concerned I need to be and what I should be doing. "

The response: "Well, we're observing him. "

Which means... what, exactly?

I walked out of the classroom and directly into the office of the early childhood director, where I said, nicely, that this would not do: either there was a real problem, in which case telling me about it for the first time three months into the year in a 10-minute meeting with no warning was inadequate, or the problem was not that big of a deal, in which case that was not a meeting well handled. She was more reassuring, saying that it was only November, they did not expect or want perfection from small children, and that if I felt there was not enough communication I could call any time.

It's hard to know what to do with all of this. His actual progress report did not look that devastating; it was more their tone of voice, facial expressions, body language etc. I know that Barak is a little bit funky and a little bit different. I know that he has a vocabulary that is not normal for his age (his teachers both agreed that he was very bright...) and interests that are probably a little unusual in your typical chareidi school. (Gilbert & Sullivan, chaveiros?) But to me he seems like your normal four-year-old kid who likes trucks, Lego, cookies and Sesame Street. He is downright solicitous of Avtalyon, and plays nicely with Iyyar about 85% of the time. The problems that I see at home--his tendency to scream when frustrated, his constant need for attention--were not even whispered of. And in the end, he loves school, he says that he has lots of friends, and he loves his teachers. When I see him play with other kids, he seems to do just fine.

Like I said. Hard to know. MHH called the early childhood director yesterday and left a message saying he wanted to go over Barak's progress with her; he's going to ask the specific questions that I was too shocked to ask, as in, "Has he been seen hitting anyone, or was it reported by other kids?" and "How are his interactions with the other kids generally--does he have friends?"and "Where do we go from here?" One of my concerns especially is that I have heard stories about all kinds of things getting sprung on parents in nursery--from the kid who got kicked out for hitting (whose mother knew nothing about any problem until, you guessed it, parent-teacher conferences) to the kid who was kept back a year for not knowing aleph-beis, whose mother had no idea there was an issue until March. Communication: not their strong suit.

If I'd had a happy experience in school, maybe I could handle this in stride and see it as normal behavior for a 4-yo boy. But I didn't. I got eaten alive, socially and emotionally, and my dread of seeing that happen to Barak is, well, intense. And up until now all I saw was a happy well-adjusted kid, the same happy well-adjusted kid who was reported to me all last year. So maybe... maybe what? Maybe he's changed? Maybe the environment has changed? Or maybe his teachers are just a little bit freaked out by scary scary pirates?


Yasmin said...

Could be all of the above. Let's see what Abba gets to hear. Will you go with him? How about you asking to meet with his teachers directly? Now that you know what the "charges" are, you shouldn't have that frozen moment of shock that overcomes your ability to ask the important questions.

But it seems to be a systemic problem, cf. your friend Naomi's warning. Maybe it's the teachers, who, apparently, don't know the kids "that well" (how many kids in his class? how many teachers? how many hours a day does he spend with them? do they split up the class between them?). Maybe this is their way of "communicating" any "problems" to the parents: are they waiting until they feel they can't solve it themselves before notifying the parents, or are they assuming the parents see the same behavior at home so it shouldn't be a surprise?

How often are these meetings? Can you ask to have 15 minutes with them every month to track concerns?

Altogether, it sounds like it's not super bad (they are acknowledging his intelligence and creativity, and denying malice) but I agree it's strange.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you or your husband can observe Barak and his teachers and classmates. If your presence would distract him then perhaps a trusted friend, that Barak doesn't know, can observe. The admission that she doesn't know him well is curious/concerning. It makes it hard to know what to make of their other comments.

malkanonymous said...

Get a composition book. Write a sweet note in the front page about how much you value the parent-teacher relationship. Call it a "communication notebook". Ask the teacher to write down any comments, concerns or general status updates *at least once a week*. Ask what they suggest you do at home to reinforce the school approved behaviors. Don't worry about his quirky interests, they've certainly seen worse.

I am very available at my 4-years-old's school. I observe all the time (which doesn't make me popular), even uninvited. They tell me that he's not listening to directions well, breaking other children's lego towers, etc. I tell them to be patient. He'll get there. I actually told the teacher to stop calling me, especially in the middle of the school day! (isn't she kind of busy?) I had to ask the teacher to relax and take the long view.

My point is: no matter what, no one wants to hear their kid isn't doing exactly what the teacher wants. Even if you think they are wrong, it hurts.

LC said...

are they waiting until they feel they can't solve it themselves before notifying the parents
This one scares me in a preschool. I know it happened in 4th grade to a girl in my son's class, b/c one of the moms, who teaches preschool herself, was really annoyed - tiny class (3), and 2 of the girls (my friend's dd being one) weren't quite being mean, but exclusionary - matching outfits, playing games for 2 at recess, . . . the 3rd girl must have complained at home, b/c the parents switched her.

The first my friend heard was when someone else told her the 3rd girl was leaving. Her initial reaction to hearing why was, "I wish the teacher had just told us to get them (the twosome) to lay off."

But apparently some teachers are scared that parents will think they aren't capable if they ask for backup. I would much rather hear about stuff up front - and have been known to tell my kids' teachers to *please* keep me posted, b/c whatever you see in school, I *don't* see it at home.

Totally ask pointed questions, and if they still don't seem to know Barak well, ask them to pay more attention, esp. if there are unverified complaints from other kids.

Good luck getting to the bottom of things.

SuperM said...

You and MHH are doing all of the right things. It sounds like Barak may be a bit outside the norm for these teachers and that perhaps that is making things uncomfortable for them and perhaps amplifying in their minds anything he might do wrong, even when it's age appropriate.

We've been there, and it's terrifying. We've had good teachers and not so good ones. Unfortunately, Barak's conference sounds not unlike several I've had over the years with different teachers, and different schools, and about different kids! I think the most important thing is not to buy into the teachers' image of Barak -- the way they see him may not be anything like who he really is, and if you know who Barak is, you'll be better able to help him negotiate this school year, and all the rest he still has to go.

LC said...

We just did conferences - and I got the opportunity to request that my son's 1st grade teacher please *let me know* if there are any further 'inappropriate smart aleck' behaviors. She hadn't said anything b/c it stopped a few weeks into school, but the "middos" grades reflected it, and she said she'd like to deal with any 'relapses' (not that she's expecting any) in the classroom. I told her I respect that, I'd just like to be in the loop if it happens again.

He has pulled such stunts at home, and this is the first teacher he has had who his siblings also had, so I'm not shocked, but I do want to be informed. . . did you get any better feedback?

miriamp said...

Welcome to the world of "school age" parent! I actually was quite pleased this year to get a call or two (about different kids) about potential problems before they got too big, and I spoke to a couple of teachers myself -- but it's a well-known fact that a lot of things get pushed off until the first set of Parent-Teacher conferences! Maybe it's just giving everyone time to get used to each other... teachers getting used to the kids and the kids getting used to the classroom rules and the teacher(s) but hello teachers, 25% of the school year has gone by and we really didn't want to miss the chance to fix things if necessary!

So yes, keep on top of it, but if it were really bad, you probably would have been told earlier. But only probably, ime.

M. said...

I'm very familiar with the ten minute conference. By November I'm mad and frustrated and feel as though I know nothing about what's going on in my son's school or with my child. The conference doesn't help.

I think the best course is not to take the conferences too seriously and to ask your child lots of questions; you'll get honest answers. (Sometimes I think teacher's search for behaviors to critique and things to spotlight in the conference.)

I try to remember a note for parents that came home with Eli at the end of kindergarten. It said something similar to: You know your child as he is at home. We know your child as he is at school. But in reality, he is something in between. I really liked that.

It certainly doesn't mean you should ignore a behavior issue or a difficulty you have with a teacher (I walked out of this year's conference and straight to the principal's office!)

Last year I faced a teacher with "old school" policies (heads down on desks when kids got a certain amount of questions wrong---um, she said she did it because the answers were wrong when the kids rushed through their work. She never understood she was teaching them that wrong answers were "bad".)

I applied the kindness principle all year though and it helped me through. During conferences I watched her (without her knowing) walk down the hall way; she seemed nervous as she got ready to face parents and I became incredibly emotional and empathetic. Over the course of the year I got to know her and a connection between her family and my inlaws came out. Kindness worked and I never felt unhappy even though her philosophies were so different from mine.

This year I'm faced with a very stern, unsmiling teacher. But, Eli's happy and all the kids like the teacher.

I'm coming around to the idea that Eli's experience is entirely different from mine and even different from the way I understand and see his. I won't, as my parent's did, leave him in a scary or threatening position at school. But, I will try to recognize the truth in between the worlds of home and school, which are quite different.

Eli is almost too well behaved at school but then has angry freak out sessions at home. And, I know in reality he is just human, in between perfect and atrocious.

I'm so glad to finally be here and responding to your blog posts and it was wonderful to hear your voice the other day when you called the schoolhouse.