Be Open, Be Honest, Be Active—A Guide to Great Parent-Teacher Conferences

It seems as though five minutes ago we were putting sunscreen on our kids and sending them out for summertime fun—now here we are sending them back to the classroom and preparing for the first parent-teacher conferences of the school year! Believe me, I remember how difficult it can be to readjust to the school mindset, but I’d like to put a word in for the importance of these first meetings with your children’s teachers.

Your attendance shows your child that you value his education, and that you’re paying attention to what she’s doing in school. You’re also creating a year-long partnership with the teacher on your child’s behalf that has the potential to transform an average or even a negative school experience into an outstanding one. Here are a few pointers to help you make the most of your parent-teacher conference.

Before the conference: Prepare to go prepared

1. Ask your child about his experience in the classroom: What subjects does he enjoy most? What does he feel he does well? What subjects does he have difficulty with? (This may be revealed with an “I hate it!”) How does he feel about the homework he’s assigned—is it too much, too easy, too hard?
2. Ask about her experience outside the classroom: Has she made friends? Is she experiencing bullying or any problems on the playground, or on the way to or from school?
3. Validate your child’s feelings and experiences, and explain that you’d like to share these thoughts during the conference to give the teacher a better picture of how to help him thrive in school.
4. Prepare a list of questions to ask the teacher, such as:

  • What are my child’s strongest and weakest subjects?
  • How does her performance compare with others in the class, or others at this grade level?
  • What extra resources might improve his performance—or how can be he further challenged if the material is too easy for him?
  • What can we do at home to support what you’re doing in the classroom?
  • Who does my child spend time with at school or on the playground?
  • Does he socialize well?
  • Is she respectful?

5. If you feel at all nervous or intimidated, remember that as the parent, you know your child best! You have valuable information and are helping the teacher do her job better. If English is not your first language, contact the school ahead of time to request an interpreter. (But please don’t bring your child and ask him or her to interpret for you; the conference is about the child and this puts too great a burden on them!)

During the conference: Share information

6. I’m always shocked when parents say they don’t want to let teachers know what’s going on at home because “It’s none of their business.” It’s absolutely the teacher’s business to know what experiences are affecting a student’s performance in school—how else can he or she help a child? If there’s a divorce or separation, if a loved one has died, if a parent is deployed, if there’s a change in financial circumstances or a change of residence…all these things create stresses for a child, whether they display them or not.
7. Educate the teacher about any physical, emotional, or cognitive challenges your child has, and the accommodations he may need or be entitled to by law. When my son was nine, he was diagnosed with diabetes. I went in to talk to his teacher about what that meant (dietary restrictions, a need for early lunch, etc.), and she was able to explain it to his classmates in terms they could understand. Later, when my son was in high school, the school district asked him to be a resource for other students diagnosed with diabetes! The bottom line is: Educate the school so they can teach your child.
8. Share information about your child’s hobbies, interests, personality, learning style, habits, favorite things to read. All of this helps the teacher personalize lessons as appropriate, or tailor reading materials to their interests.
9. Remember that you’re supposed to be on the same team. Unless you’re dealing with a bad teacher (I’ll get to that in a minute), both of you want what’s best for the child. Listen to what the teacher has to say—even if it’s not exactly what you want to hear! Express any concerns, ask the questions you’ve prepared, and discuss next steps so that you can continue a productive relationship all year.
10. Sometimes a child feels a teacher “hates me” or “picks on me.” Comments like this should be treated seriously, even if it turns out that the teacher was unaware of the effect he was having on the child. Bring your concerns to the conference, try to remain calm, and listen to what the teacher has to say. Make sure the teacher is also listening to you. If necessary, schedule a separate conference with your child. If you’re not getting a satisfactory resolution or your child’s school performance is suffering, absolutely take it to the Assistant Principal or the Principal. You are your child’s best advocate.
11. Respect the teacher’s (and other parents’) time. Show up for your conference at the scheduled hour and don’t exceed your allotted time—there are other parents waiting, too. If there’s more to be discussed, ask for the teacher’s email address, and/or schedule another meeting at a later date.

After the conference: Keep it going

12. Find out how best to reach the teacher in the future: Do they prefer phone calls or email? What’s the best time to contact them? How will the teacher let you know if your child’s performance is improving or declining? Then send a thank-you note for the teacher’s time—you can’t imagine what a difference that makes!
13. Go home and share with your child what you learned. He may be wondering what was said about him, or she may think, ‘Am I in trouble?’ Try to set their minds at ease, and also let them know of any next steps that need to be taken. Make sure you offer comments or praise on any of their work that the teacher showed you.
14. Start acting on any tips the teacher offered about how you can help your child at home. Set aside a dedicated homework time and an area of the house where the student can concentrate. If the teacher or school has a website where you can see homework assignments and upcoming projects, make sure you check it frequently.

Most of all: Stay involved. Keep the lines of communication open—both with your child and with the teacher! That’s the key to a great school year.