…no school can work well for children if parents and teachers do not act in partnership on behalf of the children’s best interests. Parents have every right to understand what is happening to their children at school, and teachers have the responsibility to share that information without prejudicial judgment…. Such communication, which can only be in a child’s interest, is not possible without mutual trust between parent and teacher.
- Dorothy H. Cohen
Parent-teacher conferences are upon us. Though we go into them with great hope for a productive dialogue about how our child is doing in school, sometimes we come away feeling like we didn’t get the information we wanted or don’t know exactly what our next steps should be. Perhaps later we begin to worry about his learning challenges but missed the opportunity to ask more about it. The conference for my son next week is scheduled for ten minutes in length. That’s enough time for a check in only. So I know that I am going to need to be in communication with his teacher at other times if I am really to understand how I can support his learning goals. With so little time together, it helps to enter the conversation in the right frame of mind. And also coming with a plan and questions at the ready can assist you in ensuring you are satisfied with the interchange.
Teachers have these brief meetings scheduled with 15-20+ parents, a short amount of time to communicate with a lot of people. Because of time and demands, the teacher may not come to the conversation with an understanding about your feelings and how you might receive their information. They have business to take care of. Hopefully, your teacher views this as a chance to further your relationship and show care for your child but sometimes, the pressure of a variety of goals overshadows a focus on the relationship. All you can control is your participation in the dialogue, so why not think a bit about it ahead of time and bring your best? The following is intended to support you as you prepare and enter into those conversations to get the most out of them.
Decide ahead on your intended outcomes.
What do you want to be certain about getting out of the meeting? Be clear and honest with yourself and your partner about what you need to hear from the teacher. You might ask yourself and your partner:
- Do I want to hear about what my daughter does well?
– Do I want to hear how my daughter is struggling?
– Do I want to know what I can do as a parent to support her in her learning goals?
– Do I want to hear about my daughter in comparison to her classmates?
– Do I want to know how my daughter is getting along socially as well as academically?
– Are there problems that my daughter talks about at home that I need to seek
clarification on or learn more about?
– If my daughter is struggling with a subject, do I need to know what approaches the
teacher is taking to provide her extra support? And what approaches she recommends
for me to provide at home?
Take care of your own needs.
After asking yourself honestly what you want out of the conversation, you may anticipate that you’ll feel upset if your teacher says nothing about your daughter’s strengths and abilities. Some teachers enter a meeting in a problem-solving frame of mind and dive right into challenges and difficulties making it sound like that is their focus. It may also give the impression that generally your daughter is struggling when in reality she might be doing well in all areas but one. So take the initiative. “I’d like to hear about what strengths and abilities you see my daughter brings to her work.”
Assume the best intentions.
It can be difficult to leave behind biases we may have from our child coming home from school and complaining about the “torture” their teacher put them through that day. Try to set aside concerns you or your child may have about the teacher’s performance. After all, the goal of the meeting should be a partnership in supporting your child’s learning. And it’s likely that the teacher will be focused on learning goals too. Bring an open mind and the intention to actively listen to the teacher. Leave any critical baggage behind and enter the conversation with an intention to form an alliance with the teacher to support your child.
Be wise about learning goals.
Though many individuals will desire or expect a child to make an “A” grade or meet or exceed expectations in every subject or on every project, that’s not realistic nor is it wise. If deep learning is truly a value for you and your child, then set your expectations accordingly. Learning means working toward a standard but not always meeting or exceeding. In fact, if deep learning is taking place, then your child will be progressing toward his learning goal in a steady way but perhaps not making perfect grades. Your expectations of mistakes, failures and difficulties along the way as part of the learning process will help you manage your own emotions about performance and also your child’s.
Find out your role.
Whether or not the teacher communicates it, it’s important to find out what his expectations are for you as a parent in supporting your child’s learning. Don’t make assumptions that you or he hold the same expectations. Ask, “What are your expectations for me as a parent in supporting my child’s learning?”
Ask for learning expectation clarification.
If the teacher talks to you about an area that requires more hard work from your child to make improvements, be sure you are clear about the goals, the steps to get there and expected outcomes from the teacher. You might ask,”What are the specific indicators my child is working toward?” Perhaps, for example, your child needs to improve her reading performance. In order to support her, you need specifics. Is the problem speed? Is it comprehension? Does she need work on vowel sounds? Then, you can ask, “What specifically do you suggest I do to help her reach her goal?” And, “How will I know when she reaches it?”
QUICK SET OF QUESTIONS TO CHOOSE FROM FOR YOUR PARENT-TEACHER CONFERENCE
Printer-Friendly Version of Questions for Parent Teacher Conferences
Pick one or two of these questions as top priority for you to ask. You will likely not have time for anymore. If there are serious learning challenges or serious social issues such as, bullying, then be sure and use your time to set up a follow meeting to devote the time to this important discussion.
- What do you see as our child’s greatest assets/strengths in the classroom?
- What subjects is he doing well in? In those areas in which he is meeting or exceeding standards, why do you suspect he is doing well?
- What do you see as his greatest challenges?
- In what areas is he not meeting his academic goals? Why do you suspect he is not meeting them yet?
- What steps are you taking to help him move forward?
- What steps can we take at home to help him move forward? What do we, as parents, need to do? What does he need to do at home?
- If the goal is long term, are there shorter benchmarks or milestones along the way that we can recognize to help encourage his ongoing efforts?
- Do classmates typically get along and care for one another? How is safety and bullying addressed in your classroom? Are there ways that I can help support school safety at home?
- Is there anything else we can do to support your efforts?
- If we have questions going forward, how best should we communicate with you? Do you prefer email, phone calls? What days and times are best?
Additionally, if you have not helped in the classroom yet and have the flexibility to do so, you may want to ask if your teacher might have a role for you. Even stapling and collating worksheets gets you in the classroom and shows your child that you are supportive of her schooling and her teacher’s efforts.
If after the conversation, you begin to generate new worries or questions about how to support your child, get back in touch. Teachers are busy people but do appreciate short communications if your intention is to clarify understanding and do what you can, in alignment with the teacher’s efforts, to support learning.
We know from research that parents’ involvement in a child’s school can largely predict their academic success.1 Take advantage of this post as a way to reflect and prepare for your upcoming meeting. See the printer-friendly version of the quick questions above and take them with you to make sure you are covering all of the issues that are important to you. Ensure that you are not only showing up but engaged in meaningful conversations with your child’s teacher as a partner in learning.
Check out the addition resources for Parents on Edutopia, The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s site, entitled “Parent Leadership Education Resources.”
Added after posting:
TWO TEACHERS’ PERSPECTIVES ON ANTICIPATING PARENT-TEACHER CONFERENCES:
As a teacher, I am a little concerned about conferences this year because of all of the new standards and common core language that is now in place. I am not really sure how to explain the terminology so the parents can explicitly understand. I am looking forward to meeting my parents but NOT looking forward to explaining all of the test results and data collections that have been done since August. From the KRA, STAR, SM6, reading progress monitoring test (which are given every two weeks), to the monthly math unit test; there has been little socializing going on in my kindergarten class.
I think the first time parents will be a little overwhelmed with what takes place in a kindergarten class nowadays and I think the veteran parents will be okay because they have been introduced to this new assess/data era. They already realize and understand that the common goal is to produce college and career ready graduates by implementing Ohio new learning standards with fidelity.
I still conduct my conferences by letting the parents tell me how they think the year is going, how they think their child is doing and how they think I am doing as the teacher. I am a firm believer in having the parents take control of the conference. This way, they lead and I follow. They like to feel like they are included in some their child’s classroom education. I always revisit their hopes and dreams that are posted and ask them if we need to change or add anything and most of the time, I have to send another copy home because they always make changes.
- Valerie Robison, Kindergarten Teacher, Toledo Public Schools, Toledo, Ohio
As a teacher my confidence regarding parent teacher conferences grew with experience. As a first year teacher, I had no idea what I was supposed to share or do. I was probably more nervous than the parents. Each year my confidence grew and I felt confident that I knew each of my students inside and out and would be able to share my insight and thoughts with the parents. I also made sure that I had already connected with each parent, so this was not our first meeting. My hope for parent teacher conference was to look at the growth each student had made and set goals for the upcoming quarter. I tried very hard to keep the focus on the parents’ child and did not want to spend time comparing the student to peers or siblings. My hope was that parents would see and celebrate their child’s progress and dreams.
First and foremost .. the most important thing a parent can do is”show up” for the conference. Even for the “good” student … nothing shows interest in your child’s education more than showing up for school events and conferences with the teacher. Once there, my hope was that they expressed interest in what we were doing in class and the growth their child was making more so than what their grades were. For example, a student who gets all “A’s”– Is it because the work was not challenging or did their child work really hard to earn those “A’s”? On the flip side, if the student has “D’s” and “F’s”, is it because the work was too challenging and accomodations and modifcations need to be made or is it because the student was not doing the work? I always wanted to know the meaning behind the grades and hoped that I could educate my parents on that too.
- Sue Rowe, Teacher Coach/Consultant, Certified Trainer, Responsive Classroom, Toledo Public Schools
Thanks, Valerie and Sue! It’s so helpful to hear your perspectives as teachers!
For further reading on dealing with challenging parent-teacher conversations, check out CPCK’s article, “Parent Teacher Conversations.”
1. Henderson, A.T., & Berla, N. (1994). A New Generation of Evidence; The Family is Critical to Student Achievement. National Committee for Citizens in Education.