I rush to the car, grabbing items as I pass through the kitchen in a blur: purse (check), paper and pen (check), toddler has presentable clothes on (check), hair brushed sometime today-mine and hers (check and check), and keys and shoes (check). This goes on for what seems like five hours but is most likely five minutes, as I make my way to the car in a rush to get to my first parent-teacher conference. We have reworked the schedules of what feels like our entire week, to fit in the short conference at my daughter’s preschool. WE CAN NOT BE LATE, as we always are. We must be on time, presentable, well-behaved and totally normal for like 15 minutes.
As I drive, the million questions that I have stream through my mind. I want to know if she is on track academically and socially with her peers. Does she tell her teacher the letters we have been working on so diligently since she was able to speak? Does she write her name? Does she talk to the other kids and her teachers, after she finishes hiding behind my legs, and I pry her free and push her into the classroom? Does she share and use her manners, or is she that annoying kid who spills all of their crayons on the floor because they were grabbing them out of other children’s hands and then screams when asked to pick them up? The mental checklist goes on and on.
And, as a teacher myself, I don’t want to make the mistake I made at the beginning of the year and scare the teacher, by asking her questions about differentiation and meeting the needs of diverse learners. My mind races as I suddenly realize, I am just embarking on my journey with parent-teacher conferences. Simultaneously, I think, “snap out of it”, berating myself for worrying so much. This is my field of expertise after all.
I remember sitting on the other side of the desk, as a middle school teacher, waiting for parents to arrive. Feeling the sting of setting aside hours of evening time only to have one or two parents, or even worse, no one show up. Trying to guess what was on their minds, what they expected, and the questions and concerns they might have. Deciding how to be honest but not offensive and truthful but not hurtful. How to express to them what was needed in a way that was constructive and tactful but not so nice that they didn’t understand. How to make the little bit of time we had productive and positive so that they would feel comfortable and come back, because what really makes an education successful is parent involvement.
Many of you who read this, who are parents and teachers, probably have experiences similar to my first parent-teacher conference. From being on both sides, I know that parents and teachers experience many of the same anxieties around conference time. All parties involved are pondering how to pack everything that needs to be said into those few precious moments. In case you too are wondering how to get the most out of a ten minute conversation, here are three tips I have learned now that I have gone through quite a few parent-teacher conferences as a parent and an educator:
- Make a Plan Before the Conference
Take a look at your student’s grades and the papers they have received from each teacher. What do you see as strengths and what do you see as problem areas? Are they completing assignments, turning them in, preparing for tests in advance, and completing longer projects in an efficient way? Talk with your child to get their perspective. What do they think is going well in school? What problems do they see themselves having? It may also be helpful to seek out opinions from other professionals who work with your child after school and in the community. Then use all of this information to make a list of questions that you would like to ask at the parent-teacher conference. Consider whether there are things from home that you could share that might offer the teacher new insight into how your child learns or their interests. Educational success is a team effort between teachers and parents. Think about ways that you would like to be involved in your child’s education so that you can share those ideas with the teacher.
- Ask to See Examples of Student Work and Assessments
Ask to see data about your student’s attendance, test scores, and grades on daily work. Find out if your child is meeting performance expectations or if there are ways they could improve. If your child is not doing well in a certain area, find out what doing well would look like. What is expected for success in this particular skill at their grade level? Make a plan with the teacher on how to improve their performance if they are not meeting grade-level expectations. If your child is above grade level, find out how the teacher plans to challenge and support your student in the classroom.
- Ask What You Can Do at Home and Set Goals
Ask the teacher what they would suggest you do at home to help your child. It may also be useful to find out if they know of any programs at school or in the community that could serve as a support for your child’s school success. Then with the teacher and your student, make a plan or a set of goals and write them down. Before you leave, find out the best way to communicate with the teacher, and set a time to follow up. After all, on-going involvement creates the best results.