At the start of every school year, parents enter into an alliance that greatly affects their children’s academic success. Though the parent-teacher partnership begins the day your kids walk through their school’s doors, the true cooperative effort occurs during parent-teacher conference time.
Nearly all schools hold conferences shortly after the academic year begins, but these important one-on-one meetings can occur at any time, and should happen periodically. “Whatever time parents have, they should come and make the most of the meetings,” says Andrea, an elementary school teacher for 29 years. “If parents have specific questions or concerns, I want them to bring them to the table.”
That’s what Danielle does. “Before leaving for conferences, I jot down a few things that come to mind, either concerns I have or things I’ve seen while watching my kids do homework. I’ve found that if I don’t make a list of what I want to discuss, I leave the conference and on the way home think, ‘Oh, I meant to bring that up!’ ”
Take advantage of parent-teacher face time by asking questions like:
• Does my child seem happy at school?
• Are there any particular subjects that they’re more eager to participate in?
• Do you see any special interest or strengths? If so, what can I do at home to foster those talents?
• Are there any subjects in which my child needs extra help or seems less motivated? What can I do about that?
• Does my child seem challenged by their school work or do they seem to complete it with little effort?
• How do they react to trying new things?
• How do they react to making mistakes?
• How do they interact with other children and adults?
• Do they seem well-accepted among their peers?
• Are there any behavior problems? How do they react to authority when corrected for talking out of turn, misbehaving, etc.?
• How are my child's creative thinking and problem-solving skills? What do you recommend for development in these areas?
• How much should I be involved in my child's homework assignments?
Danielle also talks with her children beforehand. “When my kids first started school, they seemed a little anxious whenever they found out I was going to speak with their teachers,” she explains. “So now I let them know if there’s anything specific I’m going to talk about. This way, they can relax while I’m gone.”
During conference time, parents can expect to get a glimpse of their child’s work and find out how they’re progressing. “I keep a portfolio for each student with documentation that is divided into sections,” says Andrea. “First we listen to a taped recording of their child reading, and then we go through the portfolio.” As they progress through each subject, Andrea notes if the child is doing well in a particular subject and addresses any areas of concern. If there is a problem, she makes a recommendation and asks for the parents’ input.
This has been Natasha’s experience. “When my kids were younger, the teachers would show me samples of my children’s work and give me feedback. This, she says, gave her a better understanding of how her kids were doing. “It’s important to hear the teacher’s perspective. You may be thinking things are fine, but the teacher may be worried about something.”
That’s what happened to Danielle. She thought her daughter was doing well, but during a conference the teacher mentioned five missing test papers. “When the teacher told me my daughter hadn’t returned the tests, I was floored! It was so unlike her to be that irresponsible.”
When Danielle got home, she asked her daughter about the papers and found out it was a big misunderstanding. “She looked totally shocked,” Danielle recalls. “She said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know they had to be signed and brought back!’ Then she ran and got her book bag and there they all were, stuffed in the bottom.”
It’s natural for parents to come to the conference table with expectations, but they should realize teachers have some too. “My biggest expectation is that parents want to be there,” says Andrea. “I want them to listen, but I also want them to share. They know their child best.”
One thing parents can do is tell teachers a little about their child’s likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. It may even help to let teachers know if there are any stressful conditions in their child’s life – such as a move to new neighborhood, death of a loved one or divorce. “Anything that would help me to understand their child better, I want to know,” says Andrea.
If an academic or behavioral issue is addressed during the conference, most teachers make a recommendation and ask for parental input. “When my son started first grade, he had a big struggle ahead of him,” says Natasha. “He’d attended kindergarten at another school that didn’t stress phonics, and that put him behind the other kids in his new class.” During the conference, Natasha and the teacher talked about ways to get him caught up. “The teacher was very reassuring. We came up with a plan and in time he was doing fine.”
What if you have a problem with your child’s teacher? “Be nonconfrontational but deal with the issue,” says Danielle. “Express your concern without making accusations and work together to solve it.”
Andrea agrees. “If parents have questions or concerns about me, I want them to come and tell me. Then, if they aren’t satisfied with my answer or don’t get the results they expect, they can go to the principal. But I ask that they work with me first.”
Following a conference, parents should sit down with their child and talk about what was discussed. “Whether there is a problem or not, I tell the kids everything that went on,” says Natasha. “I want them to know we’re all working together on this.”
And working together is what it’s all about. “I try to give 100 percent, and I want the parents and child to give 100 percent too,” says Andrea.
“What it boils down to is communication and cooperation – that’s what parent-teacher conferences are all about,” Danielle concludes. “They lay the groundwork for a working relationship that will benefit your child throughout the school year.”