Teacher Hack: Conferences that Work

We were on opposite sides of the table. She sat across from me slowly scanning all the papers that I had arranged neatly in front of her. My eyes glanced toward the documents occasionally, but I was more closely studying her reactions, trying with little success to interpret her silence.

In front of her was everything that I could find about her academic life. There were attendance records, year by year, since the third grade displayed in easy-to read bar graphs. Her behavioral history filled a few pages, with referrals and suspensions that some years caused her to miss 30+ days of school. There were scores from every test since the third grade. The state tests were accompanied by “below basic” tags that so often discourage our students. There were reading level numbers, diagnostic analysis of her reading skills, writing scores, and a laundry list of projected percentiles and actual percentiles. There were report cards for each year, and her earned grades in each class. She was in the 11th grade and had gone to the same school district her whole life. As her teacher, I had access to a lot of her academic history.

Then, there were a few sheets with my own sloppy handwriting in a bright purple sharpie.

“Things I’ve noticed,” was scrawled and underlined on these pages. Those pages were also full.

  1. Asks critical questions in writing and in reading. Amazing writer. More amazing thinker.

  2. Awareness of social situations that is better than most adults.

  3. When you are interested, your reading is almost college-ready.

  4. Intense emotions… both a gift and a curse. And I think it is great.

  5. Ability to bring out the best in others

  6. Your presence is felt. In other words, you change a room. Good and bad. But either way, fortune 500 companies line up for people with that trait.

  7. I’ve seen nothing about you that is even close to “below basic.” Ever, Ever, ever ever. Way above average. You’re a game-changer kid. It’s time to start changing the game in your favor.  

I’m terrible at silence. I’m just too immature for moments without words, so I jumped in with an annoying question. I can't stand this about myself. 

“What do you notice?”

She looked embarrassed.

“I’ve not been great,” she said as she shyly smiled, a rare “shy smile” from this particular student. She seemed focused on looking at all the referrals and suspensions.

I wasn’t trying to torture her. And I told her that I saw so many reasons to be hopeful on that table. I saw that she had a few outliers that seemed to tell a much more positive story. I told her that I noticed that unusually high score on the state reading test in 7th grade. I noticed the one time she tested on a 10th grade reading level in 9th grade. I told her that those things, along with all the notes I had written down, led me to believe that she was going to be a pretty amazing student. And that maybe, somewhere along the line, some adults had started to focus on some of the negative things on this table. And maybe you even started focusing on those things as well. You subconsciously started to believe some of those things define you. But it is our job to change this narrative. To write the story on paper that I see every day in my classroom.

That year, she was projected to score in the 8th percentile on the state exam. By the end of the year, she scored in the 49th percentile.

Great students conferences work hard to notice the best moments about a person, and then ask the person to be that best version of themselves. In my experience, I have found that the best way to get students to be the best version of themselves is to show them why you believe that it is in them.

And to show them that with some data. And a lot of details. 

My principal and I have started to call these meetings “data chats.” At first, I thought that was a great name. But then, as is often the case, adults started to ruin the word “data.” People start to think that we are turning kids into numbers and charts, and forgetting the humanity that makes teaching and learning so challenging and meaningful.

But this kind of data is full of humanity. In fact, on countless occasions, students have cried about challenging years while recounting why certain times in their school experience were harder than others. Teachers have to be prepared to hear about pain that students should never have to endure, and reasons why they failed all of their classes a given year. At other times, students laugh as they remember middle school, goofing off, and all of that pre-pubescent confusion. During these conferences teachers morph from planners of individual instruction, to listeners and amatuer councelors, to friends, to mentors, to motivators and to all the other roles wedged in between those.

These conferences take practice, planning, and a lot of work. They aren’t easy.

But the reward is greater than most anything I have done in my career. In some ways, this reward is built in. It makes sense that knowing students better makes the job of teaching easier and more enjoyable. However, the achievement reward is almost unbelievable. Last year alone, every one of the students who participated in a conference like this showed alarming growth. We had more students achieve proficiency than we have in years, and more importantly, each and every student got better. They showed that in tests, in their class work, their grades, and their behavior.

It makes sense. When you give students all the information that you have, you are treating them as a partner in their own learning. In turn, they rise to the occasion and act like the best version of themselves. It is a powerful thing.

It is easier for high school teachers to find historical information on their students. However, I think this kind of conversation can and should be adapted at all ages. At the base of good teaching is the necessity to help students build efficacy by helping them understand how and what they need to learn.

In short, this is what a good student conferences does. It motivates and educates both the teacher and student in that process.

Give it a try. Tell us about it.  


This is the second post in a "teacher hack" series. The first is about writing letters. It is here