Jackson’s parents came into my office one day in early November, right on time, and settled into the chairs across from me. From a previous phone call, I knew they were worried about their son’s progress in reading, but I could see from their expressions their concerns went beyond just worried — they were overwrought and even angry.
Their son, a third grader, had been struggling with reading all year. Although he had previously been on track, he seemed unable to keep up with the demands of the third grade curriculum. His classroom assessment scores were slipping. His fall statewide test results had just arrived, and his score fell in the “Limited” range. What was worse, the little boy knew it; he’d started calling himself dumb and cried when books were too hard for him.
Unfortunately, the regular teacher was out on her last four weeks of maternity leave. The substitute we had secured seemed at a loss as to how to help struggling learners. I had met with her several times in the beginning to see how things were going, and she had reassured me everything was fine and the students were all doing well. Now I had a sinking feeling I had been wrong to accept her reassurances at face value.
The young mother began. “I am truly upset how things have been going for Jackson. His grades keep going down in reading. His state assessment scores were dismal. I met with the substitute but she seemed to have no idea why I was worried; she said he’s doing great and she’s not worried about anything. I feel like no one is listening to us.” Her voice started to quiver and she reached for a tissue.
Her husband interjected. “Listen,” he said, as he put his hand on his wife’s leg to calm her. “We don’t want to get anyone in trouble. But this just isn’t acceptable. Our son used to love to read, and he hates it now. His grades are bad and getting worse. We need to know how you are going to help us.”
Jackson’s mother nodded. “We know the regular teacher can’t help being pregnant. But we believe the substitute has done some damage to our son’s education.”
Sadly, over the course of my career as an administrator, I have had these difficult conversations too many times. Not necessarily when a regular teachers is gone, but when any child seems to be regressing. These meetings are emotional and difficult to navigate. Over time, I have learned several things:
- Listen. Listen. Listen. Stay quiet until the parents feel they’ve said what they need to say.
- When it’s your turn to talk, never respond by being defensive.
- Never deny the problem. The parents deserve to be heard and not dismissed.
- Reassure them that you understand they are concerned; acknowledge that you know they are here because they love their child.
- Reassure them that your job is to help find a solution.
- Take responsibility whenever possible.
When they had finished telling me how worried they were about Jackson, I began. “First, let me thank you for coming in. I know this must be very difficult for you, and I know how much you love your son. I feel very strongly that it is my job to help us find a solution to this problem. It is never okay for a student to feel 'dumb' or to begin to hate reading. If that happens, we have failed.”
Immediately, they seemed calmer and the tension in the room lessened. “Thank you,” Jackson’s father said.
Next, I outlined a plan:
- I would go to our reading support teacher and find a way to add Jackson to an existing Reading Support group.
- I would ask my Instructional Support Teacher to go into the classroom daily to support the substitute during reading class.
- I would personally pull Jackson once a week to read with him in my office. We’d pick fun books and talk about them, so he could learn that reading could be fun.
- I asked that they do the same at home. “Make reading a fun family activity. Go out for ice cream and read. Play word games in the car. Play Scrabble at night over popcorn. Dress up in favorite characters.” I gave them several more ideas to increase Jackson’s interest in the fun parts of reading.
- I assured them I would communicate all this to the regular teacher upon her return, and ask her to closely monitor. She would give him a Diagnostic Reading Assessment to determine his current level, and provide intense classroom interventions based upon his areas of need.
The parents, now relaxed and smiling, eagerly took in these ideas and suggestions. However, their next question was a good one. “But what if it doesn’t work?”
I reassured them if Jackson was still at the "limited" level when the spring state test results came back and his DRA scores did not improve, we would enter Jackson into our Student Success Team process. We’d write specific goals and track data closely to determine what areas of instruction would need to be targeted. If he continued to struggle, I explained we could do further testing to determine if there was something else going on, such as a working memory or processing issue. “And if that’s the case, we’ll teach him strategies to overcome those problems.”
I finished up with an apology — one I genuinely owed them. “I am truly sorry for my role in this. I should have done a better job monitoring the situation and ensuring Jackson was not falling behind.”
Jackson’s parents left the meeting reassured, confident, and thankful there was a specific plan in place to help their son. We shook hands with a smile, and I promised them a follow-up phone call in a few weeks’ time.
At the end of the year, Jackson’s DRA assessment was on grade level, and he received a "proficient" score on his state tests. The plan had worked. Jackson was back on track, his parents were reassured, and an important relationship between a family and our school was maintained.