Cookie Conferences

Parent-teacher conferences were conducted last week. These meetings always give me a little better insight into the lives of my kids. In addition, conferences often help me to realize a thing or two about myself as well.

Teaching is not just about standing in front of a classroom and dispensing information. More importantly, it is about interacting with people, forming relationships with kids, and making a difference in the lives of those sitting before you.

There is a young lady in class who, at the start of the school year, confided that she has lost her mother and her sister to cancer. One day last week was the anniversary of her sister’s death. “I don’t know, Mr. Ramsey…I think it’s going to be a hard day,” she informed me. I told her to take a break from her essay and to spend time with the family. She thanked me today for that.

I truly have never heard more than a few words from this girl all year long. But, on our first night of conferences, she and a few of her friends volunteered to help parents fill out the parent satisfaction survey online and then find their child’s homeroom teacher. I actually got to see this young lady laughing and running about with her friends. She came into the room to talk to us when there was a lull in the flow of parents. She was a ball of bubbling energy.

I work with a great team of teachers who believe in the power of connecting with kids, with listening to what they have to say, with trying to get to know a little about their lives. Every kid has a story. What a blessing to be entrusted with those stories and to be able to have a part in all of the lives of these wonderful kids!

***

For the majority of our conferences, parents helped me to better understand their children. But for some, they shared about the effect I had on their kids. “All I ever hear about is, ‘Mr. Ramsey, this. Mr. Ramsey, that!’”

The best comment from a parent this time around:

“Thank you, Mr. Ramsey, for helping my son to be a nicer person this year.”

I thanked the boy’s father but asked, “What do you mean?”

Dad replied, “He says thank you for the things he gets and doesn’t take things for granted anymore. He said you taught him this. He said you make sure everyone always says thank you to the lunch ladies. He said he can tell that his thank you makes their day better.”

I definitely do insist upon the kids thanking the adults at the school that do so much for them. I stand at the front of the lunch line and make sure genuine gratitude flows from their lips.

It feels good to know that many, like this man’s son, have internalized this life lesson.

It’s what they do when no one is watching or standing by to remind them that counts. When the kids were getting off the bus after our recent field trip, I counted the number of kids who thanked the bus driver without a nudge from me. There were 23 kids who did so…about half of the kids on the bus.

The bus driver said he usually gets zero thank yous.

Sure, we need to teach kids their readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic. But, just as important, I think, is teaching our kids to be nicer, more appreciative people.

The world could definitely use some kindness right now…

***

On the second day of conferences, Manny asked, “What are you going to tell my Mom, Mr. Ramsey.”

I responded, “The truth.”

“Oh,” he said glumly. “You’re going to do that cookie thing you used to do when you were a principal?”

I looked at him and shook my head, not understanding. Finally, I remembered. “Ah, yes,” I chuckled, “you mean The Oreo Method! I start with something good (the chocolate cookie), I stick in something about behavior (the white cream), and I finish with something good (the other chocolate wafer).”

Manny – mischievous, yet intelligent Manny – slapped his forehead. “Oh, great,” he said. “I’m doomed.”

His friend, Eli, laughed out loud.

I glared at him. “Don’t worry, kid,” I said, “Yours is going to be ‘Double-Stuffed.’”

That evening Manny and his mother arrived for his conference. This was definitely not the first time she and I have met! I told his mother how impressed I was of his history, geography, and civics knowledge. I told her how impressed I was with his high vocabulary and excellent writing.

Then I shared how he wastes a lot of time talking and trying to be a clown while I am teaching. The boy obviously remembered my morning sermon on the Oreo method of conferencing: Start with the good news cookie, stick in the bad white cream, finish with another happy cookie.

“Is this the cream part?” he asked holding his head in his hands.

“Yep,” I replied. “But don’t worry. There’s more good coming up soon. Be patient.”

His mother looked at us like we were both crazy.

***

The next day we were hit with an onslaught of parents. Lots of cookies.

By six o’clock, there were only two parents left.

The seventh-grade teachers all conduct their conferences in the same room, and parents rotate to each table. But, for these last two conferences, we were tired. So, we all joined together and talked to each child and his parent as a team.

“Lenny” is a nervous young boy who receives extra support for his learning disability. He is a lovable kid who tries hard, but sometimes I have to reprimand him for turning around and talking to the boy behind him. But he loves to draw, and I allow him to do so if he gets all of his work done for the day.

His mother looked exhausted when she arrived. But she listened to us and thanked us profusely for what we are doing for her son. As she was on her way out, I reached out my arm to shake her hand. Instead, she drew me and the social studies teacher into a hug. “Thank you for all you do for Lenny,” she said.

“Sam” was next. This wonderful, sensitive child hesitantly approached me at recess one day in September to “come out” as a transgender young adult. He no longer wanted to be known as “Sami.” He no longer wanted to be a girl.

I remember hugging him then and telling him that I would support him regardless of his orientation. I told him that I would need help with the proper pronouns and that I would need forgiveness as I would most certainly make mistakes along the way. From that day forward, the child has met me after school at my duty spot and given me a goodbye hug. “You are my favorite teacher,” he said recently.

Tonight, he came to the table where the reading teacher, social studies teacher, and I were sitting. He was in tears because he had just had his math conference. More than likely, had he kept up with his homework, he could have avoided the sadness. And now he had to face the anger of his father as well.

Dad sat quietly for the entire time I spoke. As my colleagues spoke, I watched him and wondered what was going on inside his mind. Was he mad about his child’s math grade? Was he angry about his child’s lack of responsibility? Was he thinking about the daughter that he once had? Did he even know that she was in the midst of a transition? If he did know, was he worried about his new son’s future? Was he worried about his own future and wondering how he was supposed to adapt?

I never received any training that could possibly have helped me with the situation. But, as a human being, I knew that I had to say something. So, I told Dad that we were proud of his child. My colleagues and I told “Sam” that we cared about him and that we were there to support him no matter what.

I left for the evening reflecting on how our interactions with kids should be so much more than the numbers on a progress report.

***

At the start of the next school day, I announced to my class that this year’s conferences were a success and were now over. I told the kids that, to celebrate, we would have a quick breakfast Oreo party. I pulled out two packages of the symbolic cookies and passed them out. There were only a few groans in the audience…

Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2020.

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