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I love the novel The Hobbit. I used to teach it in 8th grade, and I’m sure many of my former stars fondly remember my Gollum voice (or not). We used to have great fun with that book, even watching the horrid cartoon version of the movie that came out prior to the excellent current movies.

However, one year I asked myself, “Why am I teaching this? Is there something of true value to the students or is it just because it’s one of my favorite books?” I tried to rationalize that exposing students to a genre that they might not normally read, fantasy, was valuable. However, the latter reason was, sadly, much more true.

I miss teaching that book, but I’ve found other books that are excellent and that my students enjoy. (We’re currently finishing True Shoes, by Doug Wilhelm, an outstanding novel about the positive and negative aspects of texting and social media in middle school. Check it out!) There are times that we just need to face up to new ideas, and sometimes we find that they’re beneficial in the long run.

I’ve written before about change in education and the difficulty embracing it. As you read this, the NRHEG Secondary School will have finished the first round of a big change, the first of its kind since I’ve been here: an adjustment to parent-teacher conferences.

When a group sat down last year to hammer out this year’s calendar, changing conferences became a talking point. For years, both the Ellendale and New Richland buildings have had two sessions of conferences at the end of first quarter and midway through third quarter. While those work nicely in an elementary setting, the first set seemed too late for the secondary building. After all, first quarter is done, and nothing can be done to save struggling grades.

Thus, we took a look at putting one night of conferences per quarter, right around mid-term. That way parents would have a chance to visit with teachers and figure out a plan to turn around any struggles. That right there is one big change, and I was all for it.

Then I got to thinking about it. I actually like parent-teacher conferences. That eight hours of time twice a year gave me a chance to meet more parents and establish relationships with people that I might see a lot over the years. There wasn’t much time to do that, as I limit conferences to five minutes per student so as to see as many people as possible.

That will be more difficult now. In reality, these mid-term conferences are really aimed at those people whose children are struggling. There may be a number of people who decide not to come since they won’t have much chance to see all the teachers in a four-hour time frame. I’ll miss that.

But, much like with The Hobbit, I had to really ask myself if the potential benefit to students and parents outweighed my enjoyment of socializing. That was pretty easy. As a professional educator, the answer is a resounding yes.

This leads to a further question. At a secondary level, do we even need to set aside time for parent-teacher conferences anymore? Honestly, most of the people I’ve seen over the years are not the people I REALLY need to see. Like I said, it’s nice to meet parents and discuss the progress of children, but conferences feel like they’re becoming outdated, at least at our level.

Most parents have Internet access and constant accessibility to the grades in every class. Our online program even allows parents to set up email alerts when a child doesn’t turn in an assignment or falls below a certain percentage in classes. I get frequent emails or phone calls when this happens, which is wonderful. Why not work on the problem the instant it starts instead of waiting?

I get the feeling some parents show up at conferences because they feel it’s expected of them, even if their student is doing very well. Maybe, like so many other things that are changing in education, it’s time to look at the true value of parent-teacher conferences. Perhaps our change to mid-term conferences will be the right step, or it might even be the first move toward eliminating something else that continues because it’s always been that way.

Word of the Week: This week’s word is a fortiori, which means for an even greater reason, as in, “Conferences were used as a means of communication and a fortiori for socialization.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!

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