Parent-Teacher Conferences: Working Together for Academic Success
At the start of every school year, parents enter into an alliance that greatly affects their children’s academic success. Though the parent-teacher partnership begins the day their students walk through the school doors, the true cooperative effort occurs during conference time.
Nearly all schools hold parent-teacher conferences in the fall. But frequency and duration vary from one academic setting to another. Some schools offer them once a year for 15 minutes. Others schedule them twice a year for 30 minutes. “Whatever time slot parents have, they should come and make the most of the meetings,” says Andrea Graham, an elementary school teacher for 29 years. “If they have specific questions or concerns, I want them to be able to bring them to the table.”
That is what Darlene Harvey, mother of three children, does. “Before leaving for conferences, I jot down a few things that come to mind, either concerns I have or things I have seen while watching my kids do homework. I’ve found that if I don’t make a list of what I want to discuss, I leave the conference and on the way home think, ‘Oh, I meant to bring that up!’”
Another thing Harvey does is talk with her children before leaving for the conference. “When the kids first started school, they seemed a little anxious whenever they found out I was going to the meetings,” she explains. “So now before I leave home, I just let them know if there is anything in particular I am going discuss with their teacher. This way, they can relax while I’m gone.”
During conference time, parents can expect to get a glimpse of their child’s work and find out how he is progressing. “I keep a portfolio for each student with documentation that is divided into sections,” says Graham. “First we listen to a taped recording of the child reading, and then go through their portfolio.” As they progress through each subject, Graham will note if the child is doing well in a particular subject and address areas of concern. If there is a problem, she makes a recommendation and asks for the parent’s input.
This has been the experience of Nancy Thomas, mother of three children. “When my kids were younger, the teacher would show me samples of my child’s work and give me her feedback. This, she says, gave her a better understanding of how her child was doing. “It’s important to hear from the teacher’s perspective. You may be thinking things are fine, but the teacher may have a concern.”
Harvey found this to be true. She thought her daughter Jayden was doing just fine until conference time. During the meeting, the teacher mentioned five test papers that were supposed to be signed by the parent but had not been returned. “When
the teacher told me my daughter hadn’t returned the tests, I was floored! It was so unlike Jayden to be this irresponsible.”
When Harvey got home, she asked her daughter about the papers and found it was a big misunderstanding. “Jayden looked totally shocked,” Harvey recalled. “She said, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize they had to be signed and returned!’ Then she ran and got her backpack and there they all were, stuffed in the bottom of her bag.” Harvey notes if she hadn’t attended the conference, the situation may have gotten worse.
It is natural for parents to come to the conference table with expectations, but they should realize teachers have some, too. “My biggest expectation is that the parent wants to be there,” says Graham. “I want them to listen, but I also want them to share. They know their child best.”
One thing parents can do is tell the teacher a little about their child’s likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. It may even help to let the teacher know if there are any stressful conditions in the child’s life — move to new neighborhood, death of a loved one, divorce, etc. “Anything that would help me to understand their child better, I want to know,” says Graham.
If, during the conference, an academic or behavioral issue is addressed, most teachers make a recommendation and ask for the parent’s input. “When my daughter started first grade, she had a big academic struggle ahead of her,” Thomas explains. “Jessica had attended kindergarten at another school that didn’t stress phonics, and that put her really behind the other kids who were now in her class.” During the conference, Thomas and the teacher talked about ways to get Jessica caught up. “The teacher was very reassuring. We came up with a plan, and in time, she was doing fine.”
And what if you have a problem with your child’s teacher? “Try to be non- confrontational but deal with the issue,” says Harvey. “Express your concern without making accusations, and work together to solve it.”
Graham agrees. “If parents have questions or concerns with me, I want them to come and tell me. Then if they aren’t satisfied with my answer or don’t get the results they are expecting, they can go to the principal. But I ask that they work with me first.”
Following the conference, parents should sit down with their child and talk about what was discussed. “Whether there is a problem or not, I tell the kids everything that went on,” says Thomas. “I want them to know we are all working together on this.”
And working together is what it is all about. “I try to give 100 percent and I want the parent and child to give 100 percent, too,” says Graham.
“What it boils down to is communication and cooperation — that’s what parent-teacher conferences are all about,” Harvey concludes. “It shouldn’t be the only time you touch base with the teacher. But it should lay the groundwork for a working relationship that will benefit your child throughout the school year.”
Denise Morrison Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children. She has six grandchildren.