Blog on Applied Mathematics

Parent-teacher conference with a maths teacher: stupidity is not hereditray.


The only experience that is worse than the annual condo meeting or queuing up at the post office is, probably, the parent-teacher conference.

It's an ordeal for the parents, forced to wait a long time. It's cause of panic for the students, who are afraid that their parents may be mad at them. But, I assure you, it's a terrible experience for the teachers too.

Obviously, since bad marks in maths are widespread in Italian schools (but the same can be said of schools all over the World), queues to speak to the maths teachers are never-ending, exactly like queues at the post office. In such situations, the long waits result in the best and worse behaviours on could possibly imagine.

As an experienced teacher, I tend to split parents into three categories: the strikers, the compliant and the flatterers.

The strikers are the funniest ones. They sit down, ask you how their child is doing and, before you have even finished to speak, they charge. They do it recklessly, without thinking, coming up with completely made up arguments like:

  • "Last year, with the previous teacher, my son had good marks" (Actually he had E, with me at least he's got to C)
  • "But, in elementary school he was great" (Sure, but that was 12 years ago, now we're studying limits, you may agree that that is somewhat more difficult)
  • "I am an Engineer and I know what I'm talking about. My son told me that the results were correct. I don't understand why you gave him a D" (that's correct, too bad that he copied the results without showing how he got them. How did he get them? Was it some sort of godsend?)
  • "They guy who gives private lessons to my son says that, with him, he always solves the exercises." (OK, what should the poor guy say other than your son can solve the exercises... with his help?)

The flatteres are, instead, the most dangerous ones. They always start with something like:

- "My daughter said that, thanks to you, she finally gets maths. She couldn't get it with last year's teacher." You would like to say: "Look, you have probably said the same thing to the other teacher when you were talking about your other child. Also, too bad that last year's teacher was me.", but you just shut up and pretend to be playing the game. The parent, in the meantime, scrutinizes you, trying to understand whether he fooled that idiot of a teacher or not.
- "Your explanations are excellent", they go on, "and my son is working really hard. It's a shame that last exam didn't go so well. But I'm sure that if you could help out with the grades, he would get back on track. It would be too bad if he lost motivation given that you're such a great teacher." And then the may speak ill of the other teachers, expecting that you'd support them against the guy who teaches philosophy or the one who teaches sciences.

With this lot, I usually keep a low profile. I don't expose myself to their trap and let them talk. Not much, but I do let them talk. Luckily the fact that there's a queue of people waiting to speak with me is a good excuse.

conference parent teacher

The compliant parents, instead, are the ones you try to plead for compassion.

"My son's going through may health problems, you know. He finds it hard to eat and has been so weak lately." And you say: "Are you talking about Alessandro, madam? The 6'4" tall guy who plays football four times a week with the semi-pro team?"

Then, after explaining the most improbable health and family problems, and saying that their child have experienced many different teachers across their school years, the compliant parent plays what they think is the ace up their sleeve:

  "Anyway, sir, we can't expect much from my son. Nobody in the family really understands a thing about maths.

Now you would like to tell them:

"Luckily, neither stupidity nor not understanding maths are hereditary. Actually, your son has many chances to get better." But clearly you don't say that and try to encourage them reminding them that it takes time to catch up with maths.

In the end, this is the problem: we live in a society where it's not a problem to say:

"I never understood maths."

Many are even proud of this. How do they not understand that by saying that openly, what they're actually saying to their children is:

"Give up. Maths is useless. I never studied it and yet here I am."

The problem is with the parents (and in some of the humanities teachers) who candidly say that they do not understand maths. They don't realize that they are indirectly giving permission to their childred to not care about maths!

When this happens, a teacher has almost powerless. As long as family and society will take it as granted that one can live with no maths, and that maths is not part of a good citizen's cultural baggage, this is a hard battle to fight.

You will always meet students who say "Sir, I never got maths" and they will feel justified by the society.

But the parent-teacher conference come to an end too, sooner or later. At the end of the day, the maths teacher goes back home a little beaten up, a little dizzy because of all the words that have been spoken. He thinks with some melancholy about those "normal" parents (there are some obviously) with "normal" children (what a blessing!).

Next day, you start again your classes hoping that you'll convince your students to change their minds, they who are so sure they don't get maths. You start again your classes, trying to help them love as much as they can the topic that you yourself love (thanks to some other good teacher).

I am sure that in a few years, when I will attend the parent-teacher conference as a parent, I will fall in one of the categories I've been talking about. There's nothing you can do about it, being a parent is really hard... harder even than mathematics!

(translated by Stefano)


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