Over the thirty-three years I was teaching, I participated in thousands of parent/teacher conferences, averaging close to one hundred per school year. And I’ve now got a couple dozen under my belt from the other side as a parent with my two daughters. Perhaps no other activity helps to buoy or demoralize teachers more than these couple of days each school year. Parents also learn a great deal about both their children’s teachers and their school districts through these brief encounters, both for the good and the bad. Conferences are an important opportunity to create understanding and cooperation, or to erect barriers and hurt relationships.
Understandably, teachers get nervous before conferences. This is the first time that they will meet most of the parents, and they don’t know what to expect, especially given some of the exaggerated characterizations children have provided their parents. The sole purpose of conferences should be to discuss how the student/child performed in the teacher’s class, but some parents don’t grasp that concept. The “ambush” conference occurs when parents arrive with many complaints about the way the teacher has been running his classroom or treating their child. These ambush conferences will leave lasting scars on teachers—I still have post-traumatic conference flashbacks about some disasters that I endured—where the parents have been saving up a lengthy list of teacher sins with which they proceed to bludgeon the teacher for as long as the teacher allows them. (My record was a 45-minute marathon which was the last scheduled conference of the night.) I’m not suggesting that some teachers don’t merit these tongue lashings, but parent/teacher conferences ARE NOT the place for this to take place. Any other time would be okay, but parents need to understand that student performance (academically and behaviorally) should be the only topic of conferences.
Remember that the teacher who just got blasted now has to gather whatever composure he can muster for the next conference which often takes place immediately after the attacking parents leave. Even if you can rationalize that this teacher somehow deserved this disrespectful treatment, other parents shouldn’t have to sit down to hear about their child with a human who has been ravaged just minutes before and is now an emotional wreck. Sometimes, the next conferees have been sitting right outside the classroom where the ambush took place and couldn’t help overhearing what went on, making their conference even more awkward. If you’ve got complaints with a specific teacher, you should let her know about it through a separate conference, a phone call, or an email. It is never acceptable to use what should be an informative/cooperative conference as the Spanish Inquisition (which as we Monty Python fans all know, nobody expects).
Basically, parents should be attentive, active listeners during conferences. The teachers will typically begin with an overview of your child’s performance, beginning with the grade and then explaining the specifics behind it. Since the main set of conferences usually occur right after the first quarter ends, grade information might be all the teacher really has to offer, especially if your child takes a while to warm up to new situations and initially stays in the background. Social, psychological, behavioral, and attitudinal insights are probably more revealing about how a student is really doing in class than a simple grade; but with only ten weeks of class completed, the teacher might not have come to know your child yet.
Parents should be open to that less factual information, though. Remember that your kid doesn’t act the same in a classroom full of his peers as he does when you’re nagging him to clean his room. Often, parents are pleasantly surprised that the monosyllabic, surly creature occupying their house actually can be polite and does have a sense of humor. Teachers can be reluctant to share their more subjective impressions, especially if they can detect any hostility, so it is important for parents to reassure the teacher that they’re not there for a lynching. Unfortunately, some teachers are so immersed in the standardized-testing mentality that they don’t have anything more to share than the student’s grade percentage. Parents can help both their child and the atmosphere of that teacher’s classroom by gently probing for more than curricular/grade information and asking the teacher to let them know if she notices anything out of the ordinary in their child’s behavior or demeanor. That’s not to say that teachers will all be equal in their ability to get a sense of all those things, not to mention that each teacher will have from 25 to over 150 students to monitor each day.
Although it shouldn’t dominate the conference, parents don’t need to be reticent about letting the teacher know if their child likes that class or is struggling to keep up. How the student has performed to that point is the key topic of conversation, but teachers love to hear that the shy, quiet kid is actually enjoying the class or that the seemingly confident master of her domain is having a hard time. Helpful information of any kind—family illnesses, previous school experiences, recent deaths of close relatives, and/or outside commitments, all of which can impact classroom performance or attendance—should be shared so the teacher has a better understanding of why the student might not be at her best on any given day.
Questions of class procedures which have caused problems can also help as long as they aren’t posed in a critical way. “Hugo tells me you won’t help him when he doesn’t understand the material,” will only create defensiveness and close down communications. However, “What’s the best way for Hugo to get help when he’s confused?” opens a path to problem-solving that will result in all parties working together. Going negative and attacking can always be done later, if necessary, but once that tactic is deployed; you have created an impediment for cooperation that probably won’t be forgotten any time soon. Nobody likes to be accused of doing his job poorly, so it’s important to keep in mind that teachers are fallible, opinionated humans, just like everybody else.
Communication leading to better understanding and joint work toward the common goal of helping children do their best in school should always be the driving force in a parent/teacher conference. With a positive, non-judgmental approach, parents will help support their children in achieving that objective.
For more on school reform, see James Crandell’s website http://www.snowflake-schools.com/.