Mistakes Were Made

In the entire school year, the most emotionally exhausting days are the two when the parents come for conferences. The vast majority of the talks are positive, but they still stay on my mind for days on end afterwards.


This week, I had another one of those talks, but this time in the opposite role – I was the parent and not the teacher. The original reason for the conference was that my daughter had failed a foreign language test and the teacher thought it would be a good idea for us to meet and talk about everything my daughter is doing wrong. We arranged to meet on Wednesday.

mise en scène

In the meantime, unfortunately, the situation got more complicated. The teacher had collected the kids’’ last five homework assignments, but didn’’t take my daughter’s because they were in a notebook and therefore too heavy to carry with her bad back. My daughter should photocopy them and hand them in the next lesson. The next two lessons were cancelled due to the teacher being sick, and when my daughter tried to give her the work the following week, she heard ““It’s too late.””


This set my husband off and he called the teacher (who just happens to be a former colleague of his.) It was not a pleasant conversation. By the end of it, the teacher decided she wanted the principal of her school to be present at the meeting. My daughter heard this and went into a state of panic.

en garde!

I got to the school on Wednesday and was lucky enough to run into the principal in the hall. He wasn’’t all that informed about the reason for this meeting or why he should take part. I said it wasn’’t my request and for my part, I didn’’t think there was a need for his presence. He ended up not coming. First problem solved.

mauvais quart d’heure

The very nervous teacher then appeared; we shook hands and went into the conference room. She began awkwardly by sort of asking me why I was there and what my problem was. ““Well . . . seeing as how you asked for this meeting, maybe it would be better if you began.”


““OK. . . . So . . . . Mitzi is sloppy. And she doesn’’t concentrate. Look here,”” the teacher said, turning to my daughter with her vocabulary book in hand and open to a particularly offensive page, ““this is wrong. And here’’s another mistake. And here -– here you translated this word wrong again. I mean, it is not technically wrong, but it is not the meaning that we learned in class.”” She turned a page. “”And here . . . here you did this totally wrong!””

enfant terrible

I looked at the page and saw a few red marks on it. Then I looked at my daughter to see how she was receiving all these messages. There was no defiance in her demeanor – only self-recrimination and confusion. Were those tears welling up in her eyes? The teacher continued: “”I explained this in class. Weren’’t you listening? Sometimes I think you don’t pay attention. You know, by the Matura you will have to know these things!””

This went on for a while until I had heard enough. It was time for me to intervene.


“”Okay, – we have established that Mitzi makes mistakes in her homework. My question is why she is hearing first about them now, after the test is over. Aren’’t these assignments collected and corrected before the test?””

“”No,” the teacher answered, “That is too much work.””


So basically, the teacher’’s advice to my daughter, so far, was to do the humanly impossible: to produce perfect assignments that need no correction and to hear every single word said in class. That wasn’’t going to work. We eventually got to proposals for how my daughter could get help and advice before the next test and one or two sensible new learning strategies. I asked my daughter if she understood and was okay with the ideas -– if they were helpful. She said yes, looking a bit more relaxed now.

pièce de résistance

““Okay,”” I said to her, ““I think you should get back to your class soon, but before you go,”” I turned and looked at the teacher, ““I would appreciate it if you told Mitzi what she is doing well and where she is good.””

The teacher looked at my daughter and launched into a long list of positive things –- her participation in class and in the extra afternoon lessons, her extra work and practice essays, all the extra work she does with her private tutor, her pronunciation and enthusiastic willingness to speak the language (which they rarely get the chance to do) . . . My daughter’’s eyes got bigger and bigger -– it was obvious that she had heard none of this before. Then came the best news. The teacher told her that if she kept up all the hard work for the last six weeks of the school year, she will pass the subject even if her next and last test goes badly. Mission half accomplished. My daughter actually smiled before she left us.

renverser les rôles

When the door closed behind her it was my turn to be The Steamroller.

c’est la vie!

““The major problem as I see it is that you have lost Mitzi’’s trust. She has gotten so confused and frustrated and scared,– so I appreciated you telling her those positive things -– I think it will help a lot in reestablishing her trust. It’’s really important that you continue doing that along with pointing out her mistakes. From what I heard at the start, the only message coming to her was all the things she does wrong. And not only that, the message is expressed so dramatically! You know, kids make mistakes. And Mitzi is going to make more mistakes. And sometimes she won’’t hear what you say in class. It’’s not the end of the world. But your evaluation of her has to consist of more than just how many mistakes she makes.””

The teacher tried to interrupt me and I think I heard the word ““Matura”” again, but I kept going.

coup de grâce

“”Her last vocabulary test was a perfect illustration of what I mean. This is how Mitzi described it to me. Four students came up to your desk with their vocabulary books to be quizzed. You looked down and said ‘‘I’’ll just use Mitzi’’s book because I assume it has the most mistakes in it.’’ And then you opened the book and started looking for those mistakes. You must see that it was the wrong moment to do something like that -– while she was being tested and graded.””

The teacher got very quiet and from the look on her face, I knew it really had happened that way and that I had her. I continued.

ça ne fait rien

““I watch Mitzi spending hours on her homework and Friday afternoons at tutoring and entire weekends studying for tests -– and I think “‘That’s enough!”’ – Sometimes even “‘It’s too much!’” Next year she will be starting over from scratch in her new school with a two year advantage over her beginning classmates. And it’’s not true that she will need to perfect all these things for the graduation exam, because this is an elective subject. She doesn’’t have to choose it at all if she doesn’’t want to.””

I was close to the finish line now. One more problem to resolve.


“”But like I said before, I think it helped a lot that you praised her and took the pressure off of her for the last test in June. She really was panicking before- – especially when you told her the school principal was coming to this meeting. ‘’Mama PLEEEAASE don’t say anything! I don’t want her to get even more mad at me!’’ Those were her words.””

The teacher leaned back and defensively crossed her arms in front of her.

déjà vu

““I asked the principal to come after the phone call with your husband. He was very heated and gave me the feeling that he thinks I am doing everything wrong.” (I couldn’’t help thinking: In other words, all he did was point out all your mistakes?)


““Well we were angry about the homework situation, but you have since admitted that it was your mistake and accepted the work –so that problem is over and forgotten. As for the rest of the talk, I think he sometimes forgets how people hear him now that he is a principal. I mean, you two used to be colleagues and he was talking to you as a colleague, but I can imagine you were hearing him as a boss – or something like a boss. I am sure he didn’’t mean to be authoritative or threatening. He was just a concerned father. I’’m sure he will be happy about the things we agreed to today.””


We ended the meeting on good terms, considering, with her thanking me for the productive discussion. Strangely enough, despite the steamrolling, she didn’’t seem flat-as-a-pancake. Au contraire. In fact, she seemed a little puffed up. Could it be that she hadn’’t listened carefully to every word I said?

Was this goodbye an Adieu? Or an Au revoir?


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