As parents rework schedules to squeeze into the 15-minute parent-teacher conference that is a rite of fall in schools everywhere, we wonder: What good is this doing?
Not much if you don’t prepare.
I have one child in first grade, so most of my conferences are ahead of me, but I know I am bad at the conference thing. I go in hoping to learn what his day is like, how much he’s learning, where he’s lacking, what we can do to help, and, frankly, what the teacher thinks of him. Is he kind to the other kids? Does he have friends? Does he raise his hand and seem confident? Or is he that annoying little guy who cuts up his crayon box and then hides it in his desk? (Also known as: “What mom found on back-to-school night.”).
Those are big expectations to pack into a few precious moments with a teacher who is sitting next to a two-foot-tall stack of folders for the 20-plus parents she will meet that day.
This conference is not the only time you can talk to your child’s teacher, and it shouldn’t be. It’s a good checking-in moment, but you should always be able to discuss your child with his or her teacher.
How to get the most out of the quick conversation? We gathered a few tips from people who know.
Gabrielle Carpenter, director of school counseling at Tuscarora High School in Leesburg, says parents must “establish a relationship with the teacher ... It shows that you are ... not just waiting until there is a concern to contact the teacher.”
She suggests parents:
● Send a short e-mail to teachers at the beginning of the school year outlining a child’s strengths and areas of improvement. State what your child’s goals are and what your expectations are for the student and teacher.
●Don’t become defensive if something “unflattering but true,” is said about the child, Carpenter says. In other words, advocate for your child, but also show the teacher that you are a partner in helping your child do well.
Sean McGee, the principal of Damascus Elementary School in Montgomery County, recommends parents share information that the teacher may not know about the child, such as his or her favorite subjects and outside hobbies, as well as things happening at home that may affect school work.
“Remember that both you and the teacher want to help your child to succeed....Even if the teacher says something you disagree with, try to listen to what he or she has to say,” he suggests.
Beyond that, he says parents should:
●Ask to see your child’s work. There is no better way to see how your child is progressing.
●Ask the teacher if your child is putting forth his or her best effort.
●Ask the teacher to explain. Every profession has its own jargon, and if you don’t understand what is being said, ask.
●Sum up what you think has been said. This will make sure you both agree on any decisions you have made about your child. If necessary, ask to meet again.
Finally, don’t forget to talk to your child about the conference. When my son was in kindergarten, he was nervous that I was going to talk to his teacher. “What do you think she’ll say?” I asked. “I don’t know, but it can’t be good,” he replied.
That wasn’t the case, but stressing the positive, as McGee suggests, helped him feel better about my future communications with his teacher. If there is an action plan of some sort, talk with your child “about the suggestions for improvement,” McGee said. Then “plan with your child how to carry out these suggestions.”
And if you find yourself walking out of the school, unsure of what you just heard, don’t forget this wasn’t your only chance.