Your turn in the hotseat. (iStock)

I have been to 36 parent-teacher conferences over three different decades and two countries. I have had walked out of my children’s classrooms with high hopes and dashed hopes for the school year. Before one set of conferences my children’s principal warned me of my impending trial by saying, “…your boys define the behavioral spectrum at this school.” In her oh-so-polite English way she was letting me know that I was the mother of both the best and worst behaved child in her school.

Through all of this, which I can only laugh about now, I have learned something about the fine art of the parent-teacher conference and, looking back with more than a touch of regret, here is what I should have known:

I should have shut up. Teachers know things I didn’t. My children’s teachers saw a child that I didn’t and they had a way of putting him into context that I didn’t. The single best thing I could do at a parent-teacher conference was to listen. I was being given a gift, a window through which to view my child, an opening that my open-mouth just slammed shut.

I should not have been blindsided. I hate surprises, but if I am going to get them, I would rather have them while in the privacy of my home than in my child’s classroom, sitting vulnerably in one of those tiny chairs. Talk to your kid before you go to school, ask if there is anything you should know before the meeting. The meeting will go far better if you know of any impending big issues.

A lot of what gets said, goes unsaid. Few teachers have the guts to tell parents that they have raised a monster, a mean girl or the class clown. Teachers have seen it all, few will want to be alarmists, and many will speak through a veil of politeness. Listen to what is being said and what is not being said. Reading between the lines, hearing the implications, can be vital.

Drag your child’s other parent along. My husband came to these conferences and always learned something other than what I did. Because he is male or foreign or just a different person, he heard a slightly different message or thought of different questions and we got twice as much out of our meetings.

This is speed dating, so be prepared. Let’s be honest, most of us can discuss our kids for hours, but teachers have only a few minutes to spare. Come armed with one must-ask question and one must-reinforce point and the meeting will be a success.

Do not get defensive, no matter what. Defensiveness never yields open communication. I have had teachers suggest ADD drugs for a son who did not need them, misjudge another’s abilities entirely, and inform me that one of sons was the source of the bad language used in her classroom (ouch). Get up in arms and it can be a very, very long school year. Most of the time, most teachers showed true insight and care for my children and it behooved me to listen to their insights, without argument. I was there to learn about their behavior, good and bad not to defend their actions.

If any of your questions require info, email the teacher ahead of time. I have kicked myself when we spent our precious few minutes watching my child’s teacher search the classroom for a single piece of paper that contained the answer to one of my questions. See above, this is speed dating, so make it quick and come prepared.

Don’t shortchange your child because another parent lost track of time. If the time-challenged parent who went before you took some of your time, it is truly not your problem. This one was hard for me to learn. When I found myself allotted 10 minutes and ushered in seven minutes late, my impulse was to speak at twice my normal speed. I took me many fast-talking sessions to realize that I did not need to make-up for another parent’s bad manners by cutting my session short.

No need for panic. It doesn’t all have to happen in this one, very abbreviated meeting. It took me years to learn not to try and squeeze a year’s worth of thoughts into 10 minutes. The school year is long, the means of communication are many, so whatever does not get said in this one hurried encounter can be revisited.

Lisa Heffernan is the author of three business books, including a New York Times business bestseller, and writes about parenting during the high school and college years at Grown and Flown. You can follow her on Twitter.

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