Parent-Teacher conferences are by far the most insightful time of the school year, and should not be under-estimated. If used wisely, the face-to-face time with the each of your child's teachers can provide valuable information about strengths, skill-levels, opportunities for improvement, work ethic, attitudes about course material, and overall maturity. Conferences play an important role in keeping your student on track academically, emotionally, and socially; and you can consider these meetings an early-warning system, in case extra support or motivation is necessary well before report cards come out. In addition, they can help to resolve any misunderstandings and go a long way to build a strongly unified support team with your child's best interests at heart.
Here are 10 tips you can use to ensure a positive and productive conversation:
Before The Conference
1.) For each course (subject for elementary students), jot down a few questions to ask the teacher about your student's progress. Topics might include: whether homework assignments are consistently complete and submitted on time, if your student is prepared to participate in class on a regular basis, does he/she ask questions when needing help, and what are social dynamics in the classroom. Simple questions like these show you genuinely value making sure your child has a strong education.
2.) If your schedule allows, plan to arrive about 10 minutes before your conference appointment. Oftentimes, appointments run long or things happen that end up delaying you; but by making an effort to show up a little early conveys that you value and appreciate the teacher’s time. If the conference before you finishes early, you might be able to start AND finish early too.
During The Conference
3.) Remember to demonstrate positive body language. Despite what some people think, body language says a lot - open your arms, uncross your legs, look the teacher in the eyes, and confirm what they are saying by nodding, smiling, laughing, etc. This behavior quickly develops rapport between yourself and the teacher, and makes for a more collegial conversation.
4.) Talk and ask questions about more than grades, class rank, etc. Ask the teacher how child is developing socially and emotionally. Don’t be overly concerned with scores on the progress report (especially during fall conferences). In my opinion, these two things are just as, if not more, important than grades especially in the long run.
I still fondly recall a fall conference with the parents of one of my former 4th grade students. As always, I started the conference by allowing the parents to review the progress report that consisted of my comments, as well as scores from their child's progress during the first 8 weeks of the school year. The father pushed the paper aside and said “I’m not so much interested in numbers. 4th grade is still fresh; and there is always room for improvement. Tell me about how my child is doing socially and emotionally.” It was very refreshing to have a parent who wasn't fixated on grades/scores/class rank. Needless to say, my spring conference with him was equally as positive; and his child completed a fantastic 4th grade experience.
5.) Remember to keep your conversation exclusively about your own child versus bringing up classmates for comparison sake. Teachers are legally bound to protect the confidentiality of their students. Asking a teacher about another child’s grades, or other personal information, is inappropriate. The only time it is critically important to raise an issue about another student is in the context of bullying.
6.) If you want to follow up on your child’s progress, ask the teacher about their preferred mode of communication. Teachers rarely have time to talk on the phone during the school day, so expect that email will be most feasible. If a phone conversation is necessary, keep in mind that teachers only have brief windows of free-time during the school day; so be flexible and consider speaking to each other the early evening hours.
7.) Many parents want to believe their child is on the right track based on what they see at home; however, keep in mind that your student's teacher spends considerably more focused time with him/her each day for 9 consecutive months (more if the school is year-round). However, listen carefully to all the observations the teacher conveys with an open mind - especially when it's not what you wanted or expected to hear. Reflect closely on the teacher’s academic or social assessment of your child. After all, they are professionally trained and licensed to gauge a student's appropriate development level at each age and grade. The best response to this information is, "What can I/we do to help?"
8.) Even if you feel your child is an angel, never assume your child has been objective in telling you why she/he got in trouble. There are frequent occasions when a child was knowingly “in the wrong;” but conveyed a much different scenario than what truly happened. Openly listening to the facts of the incident, rather than going immediately to your child's defense, will likely help you avoid being embarrassed when learning what really happened. It's also an important life lesson for your child to realize that every choice has a consequence and to learn to make better choices.
If your child is having disciplinary issues, be sure to let the teacher know about anything going on at home that might be affecting your child’s behavior (e.g. separation, divorce or a sick family member). If the teacher is aware, it will help them understand why your child is suddenly acting out/behaving differently and can consider effective methods of intervention.
After The Conference
9.) Send a handwritten thank you note to your child's teacher(s), especially if the conference was a challenging one. Not only does it convey a message of gratitude and appreciation for the teacher’s time and effort in educating your child; but it also shows that you care about your child’s well-being and want to work with the teacher to help them succeed.
10.) If you and a teacher have devised a plan of action to support your child's academic and/or social progress, remember to follow up and share periodic updates about the progress that you have made or observed at home. By not honoring your part of the agreement, the consequence could be that nothing changes and there's no improvement, or unfortunately, things could go from bad to worse.