Parent-teacher conference season is here again. As we have written before, this can be a stressful, confusing time. It’s easy to see why. We’re all anxious to hear how our kids are doing, yet we rarely get more than 15 or 20 minutes with their teachers. And it often happens after a long day at work, in a stuffy classroom, squatting on plastic chairs meant for kindergarteners.
It doesn’t have to be so bad. But to improve your parent-teacher conference experience, you’ll need to ignore much of the advice you get. On the internet, you’ll find article after article advising you to show up on time, smile, defer to the teacher’s judgment (because they know more than you do), and follow up on whatever you are asked to do. There’s more to it than that.
We need to move beyond the outdated notion that parent-teacher conferences are mainly for teachers to narrate student report cards out loud to nervous families, which is what happens much too often. Here are a few tips:
Focus on the big picture
In a very short conference, there is not enough time to review every single skill your child is learning. To ensure you don’t get lost in the details (or run out of time for your questions), start the conference by politely sharing what you would like to discuss. The most powerful information a teacher can offer you is their overall opinion of where your child stands. Ask whether the teacher sees your child as performing on grade level and where he/she sees performance as above or below. Why? Many students are compliant and do whatever is asked of them, but are not mastering the material they should be mastering.
Ask to see samples of your child’s work
A good teacher will base their assessments on a careful review of the work your child is doing. The teacher should walk you through what they see and how it will inform their approach to supporting your child. It should worry you if a teacher has very few (or zero) work samples to show you, if their interpretation of those samples is very different than yours, or if the teacher seems to base their whole view on sources of information that the teacher has no role in creating or scoring, like benchmark tests. You want a teacher who knows their stuff and has a comprehensive knowledge of your child. If your child is struggling, ask to see a sample of student work that is on grade level, so you can see what your child should be aiming for.
Expect a collaborative approach to problem solving
Some schools and teachers immediately put the burden of solving any challenges on families – even when it is a problem that the school should be helping to address. For instance, parents of struggling readers might be told to look into hiring a tutor. That might be reasonable, if the family can afford it. There may also be other things the family can do to increase reading time at home. But you know who else can provide additional reading support? The school. That’s something schools do – teach reading. Be wary of solutions that seem totally one-sided. You should not hesitate to thank educators for their home-based suggestions while asking what the school can do, too. Everyone should have a clear role.
Set concrete goals
Especially with younger children, schools tend to rely too heavily on vague “grades” that boil down to “in progress.” You might be told that your child has not mastered this particular skill quite yet, but that’s ok because it is only November and this is normal. What do you do when you hear that? Try asking teachers to share the big learning milestones for the rest of the year and how they believe your child will perform against them. For instance, you might learn that the teacher is confident your child will master all of the language arts standards for the year by March, but is less confident about what will happen in math because your child is struggling with number sense. Knowing that, you can set a goal around math and discuss progress toward it.
Include your child in the process
Before the conference, ask your child what you should ask the teacher, what you should expect to hear, and what the child wants his/her teacher to know. After the conference, even young children benefit from knowing what you discussed and what will happen next. While you may need to filter out certain information, you would be surprised by how much kids can understand and act upon. It sends a strong message when students see adults interested in their learning and setting the expectation that the student should be interested as well. Teachers appreciate knowing that you have their back, so to speak. And when everyone is working as a single team, students grow much faster. Don’t forget that the student is a part of the team.
Looking for more? Check out the Global Family Research Project’s Parent-Teacher Conference Tip Sheets, which include good ideas for parents and educators alike. Good luck with this year’s parent-teacher conferences!