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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Are you ready for your parent-teacher conference?


Got your parent-teacher conference schedule yet? How 'bout your case of the jitters?

Parent-teacher conferences should be about the partnership between the two parties. After all, parents and teachers are working toward the same goal, a mutual concern about the progress of this young learner. Somehow, though, the fact that this particular learner is related to you tends to muddy the waters.

A favorite story of mine comes from a mother who put a lot of thought into her first parent-teacher conference, when her son was a first grader. "I saw us as a team," she says. "My goal was to be a good listener and a good advocate. I wanted to absorb what she had to say, but I also had some things I wanted to tell her." It never happened.

It had nothing to do with the teacher or their intereaction. It was all about the chair. You know -- one of those pint-size, first-grade chairs. This slightly over-sized mom was so uncomfortable, with her knees up to her chin, that she couldn't think straight.

It's not unusual for something as simple as that to derail a parent teacher conference. Shame on any teacher who doesn't think ahead enough to borrow a folding chair from the auditorium, and shame on a parent who's too intimidated to speak up and say, "Any chance there's a normal size chair around here?"

Here are some other suggestions:

Go into the conference expecting it to be a partnership. If the teacher doesn't ask you questions, offer your opinions anyway: "You know, she's been like that since she was a toddler. She's very quiet in any new situation until she feels comfortable with the authority figure."

Since most conferences are short; 20 minutes these days is long, and there's often another set of parents waiting in the hall for their turn. Bring notes of reminder for yourself, but if you find your time is up and you didn't get through your list, try this: "You've given me a lot to think about. Can we schedule another time to talk?"

The goal of a conference is to be able to walk away and say to yourself, "This teacher really knows my child." If that's not what's happening -- if the teacher launches into a memorized monologue about curriculum, which is what should be the subject of back-to-school night, not conferences -- here are some questions that can pull the teacher back to talking about your child: "Tell me about my child's learning style." "How's she doing socially? Does she seem to be making friends? Is she comfortable in the classroom?" "Have you noticed some of the same endearing quirks that I have, for instance, that she ..."

If you come to the school experience bearing baggage from your own school experiences -- let the teacher know: "Thisis hard for me. I didn't have an easy school career."

It's hard to hear something negative about your child. Try to remember that you're a team and that it isn't an attack on you as a person or on your ability to parent. Ask for facts, not judgments: "You say she's too social. Can you give me examples?"

Tell your child that you are going to the conference; ask if there's anything he wants you to talk to the teacher about. After the conference, share a detail or two, an observation about the room, an impression you formed about the teacher or a strategy you agreed to.

Share with a teacher your philosophy of parent involvement -- for instance, that you don't believe in helping with homework other than to make the time and place for it to happen -- and ask what kind of help she expects you to give your child.

Most importantly: If you think there's a problem, don't wait for a conference, and don't wait for the teacher to bring it up to you. Talk to the teacher as soon as something crops up.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 02:24 PM
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