When my oldest daughter, now almost 16, was in second grade, we had a parent-teacher conference that didn’t go well. We knew the teacher well, and he was very familiar with my daughter and her learning style (she had him for first grade, too). But somehow, his goals and our expectations for the conference were not met.
My husband and I left the school and took a quick dinner break before returning for our younger daughter’s conference, but I was too upset to eat. Despondently, I headed back into the school and, while rounding a corner, ran into the older daughter’s teacher. I averted my eyes, but he stopped me, gave me a hug and said, “That didn’t go the way we wanted it to, did it?”
Managing expectations is one of the trickiest aspects of parent-teacher conferences, especially when time is short. Some schools devote blocks of time to these conferences, with teachers seeing families in back-to-back, 15-minute sessions, strapped for time to eat or use the bathroom. It’s like a parent-teacher version of speed dating.
But how much can you learn about anyone in 15 minutes?
Now the veteran of 10 years of parent-teacher conferences, some good, some not as good, I’ve figured out a few things along the way. Teacher friends of mine have also shared their wisdom with me, because like my daughter’s second-grade teacher, they are as invested in the conference’s success as parents are.
Here are some tips from the trenches.
Teachers are individuals
Especially during the elementary school years, kids and parents become emotionally attached to teachers and get used to their classroom management and communication styles. So at the start of the new year, it can be hard to appreciate the stranger sitting in front of you, purporting to understand your child.
Maybe last year’s teacher kept a stark, neat classroom, but this year’s room is bursting with projects in progress. Maybe last year’s teacher sent letters home every Friday, along with a weekly homework packet, but this year, homework and communication come sporadically.
It can be difficult to adjust to a new style, just as it is difficult to get used to a new boss, new colleagues, new neighbors and new in-laws. It’s the teacher’s job to convey his or her classroom management style. It’s your job to adjust to it, asking the teacher for clarification if you are confused about homework assignments or field trip permission slip due dates.
Your child will benefit from being exposed to and learning to adapt to a wide range of styles and personalities. Help him or her to see the strengths that this particular teacher brings to the table.
Do your homework
You can find details about what your child will be learning at specific grade levels, and the standardized tests she will take, at Your Child’s Progress, an online portal established by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Prior to the start of school, it’s worth taking a look at these so that you have some context for the year ahead.
Then, attend curriculum night at your school and listen to your child’s teacher explain how and what she or he will be teaching.
In the weeks that follow, stay engaged with your child and ask him what he did in school that day. Check in on homework. Which assignments did your child find enjoyable? Which were challenging?
Based on all of the above, make a list of specific questions to ask your teacher during the conference.
The purpose of the conference
Teachers spend a lot of time preparing for conferences, with specific goals in mind. Their job is to show you how well your child is mastering the grade-level standards, using a portfolio of your child’s work as evidence of subject mastery and growth.
If you are unfamiliar with report card formats (grading practices change as your child advances from elementary to middle to high school), be sure to ask, along with familiarizing yourself with the teacher’s grading style and policies regarding late homework and the retaking of tests.
Sit back and listen
Before you say anything, listen to what the teacher has to say about your child. Teachers, especially those with years of experience teaching the same grade, have a unique vantage point. They observe a range of social, emotional and academic development, and how kids navigate these changes. A teacher often knows when a behavior is “just a phase” or when it’s something to worry about.
Kids sometimes present different facets of their personal-ities at school than they do at home. Listen to the teacher describe your child. Does that description ring true? If not, or if you think there’s crucial missing information, by all means, speak up.
Teachers often say they want to support parents in raising the child they have, not the child they wish they had. As parents, we carry expectations, hopes and dreams for our children. A teacher can provide an unbiased perspective of who your child really is at this moment in time and how to best support him or her.
Leave with an action plan
Teachers and parents should be partners in a child’s education. Ideally, this means that what happens at home supports what happens in the classroom. Ask the teacher how you can support her learning goals for your child. This could mean encouraging your child to tackle tougher math problems, having her read every day or monitoring homework.
Similarly, if there are things you are working on at home that you’d like reinforced at school, let the teacher know. This could be encouraging a shy child to make eye contact or helping a messy child stay organized.
Commit to this plan and to keeping the teacher updated on its progress.
Keep the door open for further communication
Parent-teacher conferences often happen only once a year — or not at all — in middle and high school. As kids get older, they will assume more responsibility for managing their school life and communicating with the teacher, leaving less need for parent intervention.
Still, one of the best things parents can do is establish a rapport with their child’s teachers and a common understanding of the goals for the year.
Later, if you have concerns, you’ll be able to refer to these goals as a great starting point for whatever conversation you need to have.