Monday, March 18, 2013

Some conversations are more important than others

Parent-Teacher conferences are dumb, right? I've got 5 minutes for each parent, 4.5 hours of conferences, a list of things to do tomorrow that's getting longer and longer as the night goes on. The kids start to bleed into each other. Everyone is doing well. Except the kids who aren't, but how do I say that to the parents in a way that will end up being productive for my relationship with the kid?

Conferences are dumb, but that's not really what this post is about. This post is about the kid that I just got off the phone with.

I met with his parents tonight, and I told them that he seemed unhappy with the way class was going. I said that I wanted to talk with him, and they seemed OK with a phone conversation so I asked for their home number. After conferences I gave him a call.

"Look, you don't seem completely satisfied with how class is going. So I was wondering if you had any feedback or anything."

He did.

He thought that class was kinda boring and awfully repetitive. He wasn't a fan of the worksheets that I give out on most days, and he thought that the Warm Up was becoming a distraction. He wanted more notes, because they keep kids from just being spoon-fed information. He wants the notes to be more step-by-step. He's willing to stop by during lunch to show me what he means. He's worried that we're not going to be prepared for the Regents.

"Can you think of a day that went really well in class, a day where you felt I did a lot of good things?"

He thought Trashketball was good and fun. He thought that a lot of days were good, but that it depended a lot on his mood and how into it he was. He likes when we're reviewing for a test.

More on worksheets: it's really easy to copy the work of others, and when I'm walking around it's hard for me to tell the difference, so it doesn't feel like you really have to do the work. He had an idea for the Warm Up -- what if everyone had a different question, so that you couldn't copy others and it felt like everybody owned their own work?

"OK, but I've got a question. Like, I'd get it if you said that you didn't think that the problems in class were helpful or worthwhile, and that's why you don't do them. But it sort of sounds like you're saying that they might be helpful, but you just aren't motivated to do them."

Well, when he's confused by something he tends to shut down. And can he move his seat to the front? That works better in his other classes.

There's a lot that's amazing about this kid. His willingness to talk with a teacher for a while on the phone during his free time. His candor and seriousness is something that most kids can't pull off, and it's clear that he's not satisfied with a class where he's just farting around.

(It's also remarkable that you can get this far into the conversation and still put all the responsibility for motivation at the teacher's feet. And I told him something like that.)

Almost every single one of his critiques resonates with me in some way, and I think this really points out that I've got a lot to learn about creating experiences that work for the 24 different people that occupy Room 312 between 2:05 and 2:48.

But there's a bigger point here, and it's that the way I do customer feedback is all wrong.

I do surveys, anonymous and otherwise. I ask for thoughts. I talk to kids during and after class. But all of these systems have the same flaws: (1) they treat every voice equally and (2) they're quick. What was amazing about my conversation tonight is that it was with someone who is just not clicking with my class, and I got a ton of time with him.

So back to conferences: they suck. But what would've been way better is if I could've had a half hour interview with 9 of the students who are having the worst time in my class. I'm pretty sure that I can identify them. I'm pretty sure that we could make some progress in a longer conversation, or at least hit a mutual understanding and figure out some way to move forward.

Here's my commitment: I'm going to draft a list of my 8 unhappiest students, and I'm going to call them and keep them on the phone for as long as I can. I'm going to figure out what my unhappiest students think about what's going on, and I'll try to just shut up and listen.


  1. Great post. It's a good match of teacher and student since you are atypical among teachers in the same way.

    Interviews are a great idea. In the interviews be sure to include a few students for whom the class is going well, too.

  2. Hi Michael. This student knows damn well you went the extra mile, and that's really cool. Kudos to you! I had the same thought John had about you interviewing kids who are happy with the class too.

    We only have conferences with kids who are new to our school or who are struggling in our classes. ALL the junior high teachers meet at the same time the parent/student because normally when a kid struggles in one class, she is also having a tough time in other classes. If not, it's good to witness this too. Because we purposely set these up, they are beneficial overall.

    Thanks, Michael.

  3. It sounds like he must have already given a lot of thought to what he did't like about your class, which makes it probably hard to hear but at the same time helpful. Reminds me of one of my kids that I really care what she thought, not because of her math prowess, but just because of who she was. I would also ask him what he thinks HE could do to improve things. Maybe he could contribute somehow to unboring himself. It's never 100% up to one person. I was wondering also how his grades are - was it his marks that lead you to this conversation or just a general sense of malaise?

    And I think you are very brave to ask him, and then put it all down here. Reminds me of how you did globalmath last week. You are brave to the core.

  4. Michael-Thanks for sharing your thoughts about where kids fit into conversations about learning. Wish my kid had access to a teacher who was willing to ask what works and what doesn't. 11 years of school and not one teacher has asked him.