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October 2004
Parent-Teacher Conference Tips
Aiming for a Win-Win Situation

by Becky Fleischauer

Alexandria mother Lynnae Henderson could write a book on parent-teacher conferences and communicating with schools. She’s been through it all — a daughter who seemed to breeze through school, a son identified as a "slow starter," inspiring teachers who motivated her kids and one who antagonized and discouraged them (and even called Henderson the "b" word). She’s fought for diagnostic tests and extra help for her son, volunteered countless hours in her children’s school and squirmed through a call from the principal informing her that her daughter had given a boy a black eye. Through it all she maintains an eternal optimism and an abiding faith in teachers.

"I love teachers. They have such an important job, and they love kids," Henderson said. "I just have enormous respect for the job they do."

As area parents prepare for the first parent-teacher conferences of the year, they might consider the insights and lessons of fellow parents like Henderson. "It’s hard for parents to know what to do if you’ve never had a kid in school before," said Henderson, who now has a son in college and a daughter who will graduate from high school next spring. "Teachers do keep track of which parents come and which don’t. If they get to know who you are, I think your child has advantages. They pay attention to your child a little more."

Other tips from local parents, educators and family/school experts include:

Get to know your child’s teacher before the first teacher conference. Establish an early rapport, and signal your desire to be informed about your child’s progress on a real-time basis, not just when report cards are due. Having an established relationship also helps you both "cut to the chase" during parent-teacher conferences and address issues directly.

Parent-teacher conferences occur twice a year in most school districts — during the fall and spring. The one in the fall (generally held in October) provides parents with an opportunity to find out what their child will be learning and how she is adjusting to the first weeks of class. If there are problems, it offers an opportunity for parents and teachers to work together to fix them early before a child falls too far behind.

Don’t be timid. Too often parents view parent-teacher conferences as a polite obligation and are just happy to escape without any unnerving discussions. An empty but amiable conference serves no one well, especially your child. No one knows your child better than you, and teachers benefit from your insights. Sharing what’s happening with your child at home and what interests and motivates her gives teachers a valuable perspective. "Really fill that teacher in on the good and the not-so-good," urged Anne Henderson, parent involvement expert and author of Way Beyond the Bake Sale. "Then if your child does stumble, the teacher feels she can contact [you] and won’t be afraid of the kind of reception she will get when she goes to pick up the phone."

Keep in mind that the teacher is apt to be apprehensive too. This is particularly true as teachers tend to get younger and parents get older. "Even though it seems like the person who should be more intimidated is the parent, since the teacher is the expert, she’s likely to be just as nervous as you are. Many teachers are worried that parents will be angry or overbearing," Henderson said.

Talk with your child before the conference. Ask your child how she thinks the school year is going and if she is comfortable with the style and pace of the class. Find out what her favorite and least favorite subjects are, where she might need extra help and whether there are issues you should raise with the teacher. This not only provides valuable information to share in the conference but also opens an important line of communication with your child and sends a message that you want to help her get the most out of school.

Make a list and prioritize. The average parent-teacher conference lasts only 20 minutes, and time flies when you’re talking about your child. To get the most of every minute, write down a list of things the teacher should know about your child and another list of questions you would like to ask. Put the most pressing issues at the top, so you have enough time to address them without feeling rushed.

What to tell the teacher:

  • What your child has enjoyed about the class
  • What your child has found difficult or confusing
  • How your child learns best. Does she need to visualize things and talk aloud, or does she prefer to listen and mull? Do hands-on projects hold her attention longer?
  • What health issues or other special needs, if any, affect learning
  • What your child’s experience has been with homework assignments
  • What stresses, if any, at home that may impact learning
  • Which friends your child enjoys in the class

Questions to ask the teacher:

  • Does my child seem to like school and get along with classmates?
  • What skills and knowledge will my child be expected to master this year in each subject?
  • What is your grading system, and how do you communicate expectations to students?
  • What are my child’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • How do you identify and adapt to learning-style differences?
  • Are children grouped by ability? Where is my child placed?
  • What can my child work on at home to help master specific skills and subject areas?
  • What can I do to stay involved and informed?

Keep the focus on what and how your child is learning. "A lot of times the conversations at conferences will be about behavior, but it’s important to ask questions about learning," Anne Henderson said. "Ask, ‘Is my child performing at grade level? Where is my child weak? What skills need reinforcing? What reading group is my child in, and what can we do to help her catch up so she’s where she needs to be to get out of the lower placement?’" If the conversation merely swirls in the safe territory of behavior, Henderson said, you will learn that your child gets along well, she turns in neat work, she listens, etc. "You can go away thinking your daughter is a star, when she might be reading below grade level."

Henderson encourages parents to ask for examples of student work that demonstrates mastery in each subject area. Seeing what other students’ work looks like, and being able to compare it to your child’s, gives you a reference point for understanding what is expected of students at each grade level.

Know where your child is placed. When Maryland parent Evie Frankl attended orientation night at a Takoma Park school and noticed parents being split off into groups according to their child’s ability, she started asking questions. "There are groups arranged by ability that are inflexible and ongoing," Frankl said. "At the end of second grade, they identify 30 percent of students as gifted and talented, and everybody else by default becomes labeled ‘not.’"

Frankl said that after this sorting process students are locked into a mind-set of academic inferiority. "A lot of research has been done on expectations as a determinant of student success or failure," she said. "The truth is that a lot of parents [whose children] are identified as ‘not’ don’t know it’s going on. They don’t know there are two tiers. People just sort of go with the program."

Frankl started the Montgomery County Education Forum — a group of parents and community leaders dedicated to ending this system of tracking and replacing it with a form of teaching that is tailored to individual needs. "We feel like the label is unnecessary and perpetuates achievement gaps among students," Frankl said.

Frankl just returned from a workshop on "differentiated instruction," which offers strategies for tailoring instruction to each child’s readiness, interests and learning style. "You don’t want to have work that is rote or remedial or not respectful," she said. "You want everyone to develop critical thinking skills and to have creative, imaginative activities that engage young minds."

Beware of jargon and code phrases. Often unintentionally, many educators use jargon and code phrases that can obscure what is really being said. In his book, The New Public School Parent: How to Get the Best Education for Your Elementary School Child, former social studies teacher and National Education Association President Bob Chase says many teachers use ambiguous terms out of "faculty locker room" habit or to sugarcoat difficult issues, not to hedge or obfuscate.

For example, the following are terms Chase says have simple surface meanings but are signals that parents should probe further:

  • "At-risk" or "vulnerable" are victim terms and imply the source of the problem is in the child. Make sure you and the teacher identify assets and strategies for compensating.
  • "Emerging" or "delayed," as in, "Your child’s reading skills are emerging," can be a way of saying developmentally subpar. Make sure there is a plan for addressing your child’s needs rather than merely waiting for progress.
  • "Shy" and "well-behaved" can be terms for quiet, intimidated or uninvolved.
  • "Has difficulty listening" can mean impulsive or disobedient.

Compounding matters, the new federal education law, the No Child Left Behind Act, includes a multitude of technical terms (see sidebar).

Count to 10, take a deep breath, and smile. You don’t have to make it a goal to have the teacher "like" you, but you should be reluctant about being confrontational. An antagonistic relationship will not help your child. If things get heated or accusatory, try to find ways you can work together. Be mindful of the ways you can influence this dynamic.

Prince George’s County Middle School teacher Ingrid Reynolds-Lawson encourages parents to be persistent and open-minded. "Parents tend to bring their prior experiences in school with them to the table. Sometimes they are positive, but often they are negative. They already have a chip on their shoulder, and they’re already feeling like the teacher isn’t doing her part and is failing their children," Reynolds-Lawson said. "Even though we’re not supposed to take it personally, we do."

It also helps to keep in mind that many teachers, like Reynolds-Lawson, are also parents. "I feel like if these parents love their children even half as much as I love mine, I have to do right by their child," Reynolds-Lawson said.

Recognize that rules aren’t ‘mean.’ At a recent parent-student orientation session at Eugene Burroughs Middle School, Reynolds-Lawson laid down the rules for the year, a routine she uses to start every new school year:

"No late homework."

"Arrive to class on time."

"Come to class prepared to work immediately."

"No back talk."

"Don’t get out of your seats without asking."

"Do your very best work."

"I looked around, and the parents’ jaws were dropping," Reynolds-Lawson said. "They looked stunned, so I asked the students to leave the room. I shut the door, turned to the parents and said, ‘That was just my game face. I’m a lot softer than that. I just need to set expectations.’ I told them that if I let the students come in here and run over me, I cannot come back to you and tell you that I did a good job. One mom raised her hand and said, ‘Whew.’ I said, ‘Just don’t tell your kids,’ and they laughed. When they come to you and tell you how mean I am, you can understand that I’m not."

Join forces with other parents. Anne Henderson says if you’re really having difficulty getting your child’s needs addressed or are frustrated with school policies, talk to other parents, and mobilize. "Don’t go by yourself, because you can be labeled a nutcase or troublemaker," she said. "Get a group of three or four or more. You need to have more than two, because two can be seen as just a nutcase and her friend."

Jill Weiler, Director of D.C.’s Tellin’ Stories project, can attest to the power of parent alliances working to improve and support schools. The project creates opportunities for families to connect to each other and to their school through the power of storytelling and workshops that teach parents how to analyze the school climate, the facilities and the quality of teaching and learning at their school. The project has produced real changes — more crossing guards at schools, more information given to parents more often, new teaching techniques and improved relationships between parents and school staff.

"We look beyond traditional ways that parents can connect to their children’s education. The idea is for parents to fulfill multiple roles, not just to do bake sales," said Weiler. "We all are the ones who solve problems here. It really brings parents in to be a supporter of their child and their school."

Becky Fleischauer, an education consultant and middle-school tutor, lives in Alexandria.

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