- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 23, 2004

The awkward meeting happens millions of times a year. The parties usually sit across from one another, sizing each other up and thinking how to approach the subject that they have in common. Since both sides don’t know each other well, there is no predicting how the meeting might end.

No, it’s not a first date. It is a parent-teacher conference, the required meeting of the people most crucial to the growth and development of a child.

In most area schools, particularly in the lower grades, conferences are regularly scheduled once or twice a year. If prepared for and approached the right way, it can be 15 minutes of valuable give-and-take about bringing out the best in Junior.

If managed poorly, though, a conference can set the course for a rocky relationship, says Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, professor of education at Harvard University and author of the book “The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other.”

Whatever the outcome, it is understandable that both sides can be nervous, Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot says.

“Not only is the person you are advocating — your child — the most important person in your life, you want to hear good things and are afraid of hearing bad,” she says. “Meanwhile, teachers feel vulnerable. Parents come into a conference feeling very protective of their children; teachers come in with the view that everyone needs attention. The views inherently conflict with each other, but I do not believe parents and teachers have to be natural enemies.”

Chasing the ghosts

Say fourth-grade math ruined your year or sixth grade was a social disaster. Sure, it was 30 years ago. However, when a parent enters his child’s classroom, sits in the little chairs and faces their child’s authority figure, sometimes the ghosts come back, Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot says.

Marcia Dorsey, fourth-grade teacher at Deep Run Elementary School in Elkridge, Md., says she can tell “within the first two minutes” whether the parent she is meeting has had a positive academic experience.

“If a parent had a poor experience, the fear and hostility shows,” Mrs. Dorsey says. “I try to let them know I am on their child’s side.”

Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot says parents should acknowledge whatever bad feelings they have leftover from their school days, and happily recognize that those days are behind them. Then they will be able to concentrate on the task at hand — their child.

Kim Davis, mother of two high-school-aged students at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, says she was, indeed, nervous the first few times she met with her children’s teachers.

“At least the first few times, I was intimidated,” she says. “After a few conferences, though, you get the system under your belt and realize it is an opportunity to gain the assistance of someone on the other side. I look at it as a partnership.”

If both sides enter the conference prepared, it will be a more successful meeting, says Erika V. Shearin Karres, a longtime educator and author of “A+ Teachers: How to Empower Your Child’s Teacher, and Your Child, to Excellence.”

For the teacher, this means having all materials ready, including a folder with the year’s educational objectives, testing dates, numbers where she can be reached and examples of the student’s work, Ms. Shearin Karres says.

Parents, meanwhile, should let the teacher know how they can be contacted and how often.

“Some want to be notified each time homework is late, and some don’t want to be contacted unless it is a big deal,” she says.

Getting administrative items out of the way frees up time to talk about the individual child, Ms. Shearin Karres says. In fact, it would be much better if some of these initial exchanges were done earlier in the year, she adds.

Cindy Schwartz, mother of a seventh-grader at Cabin John Middle School in Potomac and a fifth-grader at Stone Mill Elementary in North Potomac, says she always makes a point of getting to know her children’s teachers much earlier than the November parent-teacher conference.

“By the time I get in there for a conference, I have spoken to the teacher several times,” she says. “If you don’t contact the teacher ahead of time and you go in there for a conference, you are going to have 15 minutes at most, and 10 of them are going to be spent trying to relate.”

Ninette Reis, a third-grade teacher at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, says she keeps materials — including the students’ report card — outside the classroom, so parents can pre-read it while waiting for their turn at the November conference. This saves time and prepares both sides for the actual conversation, she says.

Mrs. Reis, who has been teaching for 13 years, says she actually looks forward to meeting the parents. She says she learns a lot from parent-teacher conferences, such as what a child’s home life is like and how the student is adjusting to the demands of the new school year.

Good news, bad news

A good teacher should never start the conference with bad news, Ms. Shearin Karres says. Even if she does have some concerns or criticism, they should always be preceded with one or two positives, she says.

“Negatives are always tough to deal with,” she says, “but you know how sensitive people can be. Some people will automatically take the criticism and think, ‘Uh-oh — I am a bad parent.’”

Still, there is always going to be some criticism. It is important to learn why the teacher is saying this and what you can do about it, says Judy Madden, supervisor of school counseling services for Montgomery County Public Schools.

As an experienced educator and the mother of three grown sons, Mrs. Madden has been on both sides of the table at many conferences.

“If a teacher says your child is having difficulty, say, ‘Tell me more,’” Mrs. Madden says. “Then you can get more in-depth information, and you can address how the problem can be fixed. It is hard to hear not-happy news about your child, but take a positive position, instead of a defensive one.”

Meanwhile, parents can give teachers relevant information on what is going on with that child outside the classroom and how it might affect his performance.

“When my oldest son was 11, he was diagnosed with diabetes,” Mrs. Madden says. “That had a big effect on the family, so I told the teachers of his younger brothers. Teachers need to know things like that so they can understand the whole child.”

If parents and teachers have a good working relationship, then parents will very rarely be blindsided by an issue at the parent-teacher conference, Mrs. Madden says. A good teacher should contact parents much earlier in the year if work is not done or there is a behavior problem, she says.

Whether the news of some problem comes by an e-mail the second week of school or across the table at the fall conference, parents should accept the criticism and learn from it, Ms. Shearin Karres says.

“Being shocked once by what a teacher says is good,” she says. “Then your child can improve. It is tough to hear, but then you will act upon it. A bad parent wouldn’t be shocked or upset.

“A lot of people think their kids are perfect,” Ms. Shearin Karres says, “but few are. One thing we say is that few things in education can’t be solved. There is always a way to manage, improve and solve. You can have schedule changes, teacher changes, tutoring. The whole world is open for the student whose mom and dad wants to work more closely with the schools.”

Tips for parents

Have a parent-teacher conference coming soon? Keep these suggestions in mind to make the most of your time with your child’s teacher:

• Acknowledge the ghosts in the classroom. Sometimes situations from your own childhood can crowd into your child’s classroom and haunt the conversation you are having with his teacher.

• Bring your child, if you can. Many schools want the conference to be just parent and teacher, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if the child can be a part of it. Remember, your child is the only one who daily navigates home and school. Even young children can provide valuable insight to a parent-teacher conference.

• Remember that you know your child best and are his best advocate. Come to the conference prepared to offer your view of your child. That includes information and stories about her strengths and weaknesses, home life and past educational experiences.

• No conference should feel routine or one-sided. A successful conference should value the perspectives of all participants and focus on your child as an individual.

• Stay involved. By being at the school more than just once or twice a year, a parent will learn a lot about his child’s development and experience in the classroom and how to support his child’s learning at home.

• Ask for the truth — and be ready to hear it. Be prepared to ask follow-up questions to get specific details. Also, come prepared to listen to the teacher’s point of view with respect and empathy. Telling the truth can sometimes result in tension and conflict. Don’t avoid the truth, instead, see it as an opportunity to explore the sources of differences and reach an understanding.

• Be involved, but be conscious of crossing the border. Crossing school/family boundaries requires a delicate balance of assertiveness and restraint. Remember that your child needs to establish his or her own identity and place at school and that teachers need to develop a classroom culture that is fair to all children.

• Work together. “We” is the most important word when parents and teachers talk. The two should find a way to work together in support of the student.

• Ask specific questions. If you say, “How are things going?” You might get a “fine” from the teacher. Try to narrow your questions down to exact items such as: “Has my child made improvement in math since the start of the year?” Keep a running list of questions on notecards ahead of time.

• Even if your child is doing well, don’t let the opportunity to ask questions pass you by. Some things to check on: What grade level is my child reading on? How does he compare to his peers? How is his behavior in class? How is his work ethic? What are his strengths and weaknesses? Does he have friends?

Sources: Harvard education professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot; educator and author Erika V. Shearin Karres; Family Education Network, a commercial site with articles for parents of students from grades pre-K to 12.

More info:

Books —

• “A+ Teachers: How to Empower Your Child’s Teacher, and Your Child, to Excellence,” by Erika V. Shearin Karres, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2003. This books has lots of tips for parents and teachers about improving and maintaining communication.

• “The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other,” by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Random House, 2003. The author of this book points out that parents and teachers don’t have to be “natural enemies.” Instead, they can learn to respect one another and work together.

Association —

• National Education Association, 1201 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Phone: 202/833-4000. Web site: www.nea.org. The NEA is a nonprofit advocacy group that seeks to advance public education. The group has information about getting involved in your child’s education, including tips for an effective parent-teacher conference (www.nea.org/parents/ptconf.html).

Online —

• The Web site of the National PTA has information for parents, including a tip sheet for an effective parent-teacher conference (www.pta.org/parentinvolvement).

mFamily Education Network, a commercial site with articles for parents of students from grades pre-K to 12, has a good guide for parents headed to a conference (www.familyeducation.com).

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