Anxiety-Free Parent-Teacher Conferences
I rank parent-teacher conferences up there with root canals and delayed flights when it comes to anxiety and stress. I dread them. My hunch is that I'm not alone.
To get over my conference fears this year, I gathered tips and insights from three women who've sat on both sides of the table – as teachers and as mothers: Lisa Calvert, a veteran teacher at McGilvra Elementary School and mother of three kids from fourth to eighth grades; Anne Forester, mom of fourth- and first-graders, who taught elementary school in California for six years; and Surella Scott, a new teacher at Muir Elementary School and mother of three children in second and third grades.
I also caught up with Abie Simmons, director of Washington state's Office of the Education Ombudsman, to get her take.
TOP TIPS FOR CONFERENCE SUCCESS
1. Understand the Conference Format
Parent-teacher conferences held in elementary schools throughout the region usually happen in November, once teachers have an early but good grasp of academic progress students are making.
The conference may feel like it lasts hours. In reality, the format only allows 20 to 30 minutes for parents and teachers to discuss a student's work.
Understanding the time limitation is important, says Calvert. Teachers have two very clear purposes for the session: to share their assessment of a student's academic progress with parents and to set goals for the school year.
If parents have a significant concern, they should schedule a follow-up meeting with the teacher instead of trying to resolve the problem during the conference, Calvert says. While the teacher can suggest a short-term solution for the interim, the conference format is simply too limited for teachers and parents to tackle big problems.
2. Come Prepared
Teachers prepare for conferences by evaluating student work and developing goals for the school year. You should also spend some time preparing for the meeting by thinking of specific questions and concerns you have about your child's education.
Scott recommends writing down a list of questions. "It's similar to when you go to the doctor," she says. "Other things come up, and you may forget what you want to ask about."
If you are not sure what to ask, the Education Ombudsman's office offers a brochure, "Make the Most of Parent-Teacher Conferences," with suggested questions (see resource box).
3. Connect with Your Child
Plan to get your child's perspective on school before the conference. Calvert says that teachers appreciate hearing how children describe their friendships and academic work. Teachers also want to know about any major events at home that might impact the child in the classroom.
Forester reminds parents to reconnect after the conference, too, letting kids know where they are doing well along with what they need to work harder on. As a teacher, she was surprised to discover many of her second-grade students had no idea how they were doing in school.
In fact, many schools involve students in the conference with kids leading the discussion and providing examples of their work.
"At our school, we want students evaluating themselves and providing input at the conference. It's not just parents and teachers talking about students and interpreting the work in their absence," says Calvert.
At McGilvra and Muir elementary schools, students begin participating in conferences in the fourth grade. Other schools might involve younger students as well, or may not include students at all. It's worth checking with your child's teacher beforehand.
4. Watch the Tone
"Good communication is the cornerstone of a successful conference," Scott says, when asked about how parents and teachers relate to one another.
Parents should be aware of their emotions heading into the conference. "If parents seem defensive up-front, it shuts down communication," Calvert says.
On the other hand, you should not shy away from asking questions when there is disagreement or a need for more information. Parents can ask to see examples from their child's school work as evidence of a teacher's concern, Scott notes.
Calvert suggests parents can probe into problem areas without being confrontational by asking how assignments are made and what skills are needed to complete a task.
When you don't ask questions, misunderstandings can occur. "We hear a lot about parents who hold in their concerns and then explode at teachers. It's not fair to the recipient," Simmons says.
5. Don't Be a ‘Helicopter Parent'
On the one hand, parents are told it is important to be involved in their children's education. On the other hand, nearly everyone is familiar with the term "helicopter parent," used to describe over-involved moms and dads who swoop in to save their children from criticism or potential failure.
How do you find the right balance?
Forester knows this challenge firsthand through her teaching background and current role as vice president of the PTA at her children's school.
"Parents need to look at [the conference] from the teacher's perspective," she says. "They are the professionals. Let the teacher drive the conversation."
Simmons talks about teachers being professionals in much the same way that doctors are professionals. By having good conversations and asking for guidance from teachers, parents can find the right level of involvement, she says.
6. It's Not about You
Everyone brings "ghosts" into the classroom during conference time, from childhood experiences to memories of bad conferences in past years.
Conferences can be especially stressful for parents who are separated or divorced. Negative emotions between parents risk undermining the purpose of the meeting – to partner around the student's educational needs.
It's important for parents in these situations to talk with each other about how to communicate effectively during the conference, Calvert says. If that seems impossible, parents may want to request separate meetings with the teacher.
When you sit down at the table with the teacher, it's important to step back and remember that the conference is about your child, not you.
"Everyone there wants the child to be successful," Simmons says.
7. Consider the View from the Top
Simmons recalls her worst parent-teacher conference, years ago when her daughter was in first grade. "I went home feeling like my daughter was a failure," Simmons says.
But instead of blaming the teacher or avoiding school events, Simmons made a follow-up appointment with the teacher to talk about her perspective. She also began volunteering in the classroom, allowing her to observe her daughter's work at school.
"By the end of the year, the teacher and I were good friends," Simmons says.
Simmons is well aware that educators are not taught how to interact with parents. Her office is focused on making parent communication training part of the statewide teacher preparation process.
Parents, too, are often in the dark. "No one tells you what you should do, what your role is when it comes to your child's education," Simmons says.
Since her office began providing services in early 2007, Simmons says they have helped resolve about 360 cases brought by either families or teachers. They also provided training on school-family partnerships to more than 1,200 people statewide, and offer online resources in multiple languages for families and educators.
The Office of Education Ombudsman is committed to helping parents and teachers develop strong partnerships at the conference table and throughout the entire school year. They welcome calls from public school parents and teachers who need help with school issues.
Parent-Teacher Conference Checklist
Before the Conference
• Get your child’s input on school.
• Jot down a list of questions to ask.
• Find out if your child is expected to attend the conference.
During the Conference
• Keep an open mind.
• Avoid being confrontational or hostile.
• Remember that time is limited.
• Ask questions if you’re not sure about something the teacher said.
• Schedule a follow-up meeting for concerns that were not addressed.
After the Conference
• Share information with your child about his schoolwork. Be sure to include both praise and areas for improvement.
• Follow up with the teacher if you feel goals discussed during the conference need to be revised.
Washington State Office of Education Ombudsman
“Make the Most of Parent-Teacher Conferences: A Guide for Families of Elementary School Students” brochure
The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other, by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot (Ballantine Books, 2004)
Denise Gonzalez-Walker is Seattle freelance writer and mom of two children, ages 4 and 10. For the first time, she’s looking forward to parent-teacher conferences.