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Parent-teacher conferences may be your first opportunity to meet your child’s teacher. Having coached parents and teachers, and been on both sides myself, I know how apprehensive everyone can get. Each person carries a lifetime of assumptions that can cloud that all-too-short meeting. And yet, for many of you, this is your only time to have a meaningful conversation with your child’s teacher. So how can parents make the best of their minutes?Express your fears and joys—before your conference. There is nothing like sitting in a child-size chair to bring back memories—good and bad. To better prepare, remember what school was like for you when you were the age your child is now. Our anxieties for our children can stem from our own struggles as children. Often during the conference, parents express deeply held desires and worries about their child. While this is understandable, it can cloud the conference’s purpose. Instead, before your meeting, find a confidant to talk to about your feelings about your child. Or write them down. That way you can keep the conference’s focus where it belongs—on information your child’s teacher has to share based on his or her observations.
Include your child. Explain to your child that this conference is an opportunity to share ideas and information. Ask her if there are specific things she would like you to talk about with her teacher. Listen when your child talks about her teacher and the class. Older students may be invited to the conference. (Check with the school.) If that’s the case, involve your child in the conversation. Let her ask and answer questions for herself. Avoid talking for or about her, in front of her.
Be punctual. Arrive and leave on time. If the conference was not long enough, simply arrange another meeting.
See the same child. As you hear your child described by the teacher, compare that version to the child you see at home. It’s important your child is similar in both places. For instance, if your child is talkative and excited at home but appears quiet and sullen at school, that should be a signal to share strategies for increasing the child’s comfort at school.
Bring and take notes. Unless you have an unusually good memory, you’ll want notes. Before the meeting, make notes to help you remember questions or observations you want to share. Know your goals and keep them simple. During the conference, note taking can help you stay focused. Afterward, it’s helpful to have a record so that you can follow up on any items.
Share strategies. Often, when a teacher tells us something hard about our child, our impulse is to explain it away or get defensive. Instead, ask the teacher what his advice might be. Try saying: “When you’ve experienced this before, what strategies seem to have worked?” Tell the teacher what has worked at home. You never know what may spark some new ideas. Remember, too, that strategy sharing is not just for solving problems. Brainstorm about nurturing your child’s strengths and fueling his passions.
Keep the connection alive. Unlike some workers who sit at desks all day, teachers often reach a computer only once or twice a day. So don’t overwhelm them with e-mail. Still, keep up the connection. Let her know (occasionally) that you’re thinking of the class in a positive way. Clip articles. Offer to chaperone. Certainly, you can call or e-mail with concerns. But avoid that being your only connection. Show the teacher that you appreciate her time and value her dedication; her commitment to her job translates to a commitment to your child’s learning.
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.