Peggy Coppola of Dix Hills, New York, learned an important lesson when she showed up late — and unprepared — for her first parent teacher conference with her son's kindergarten teacher. "She told me things I didn't expect."
Coppola says she felt like "a deer in headlights" when she discovered Johnmarco wasn't performing well on tests and was staring at the ceiling when he was asked questions. "I walked out kicking myself," says Coppola. "I should have asked how I could help, whether his behavior was normal for his age, or what the school could do. If I had stopped and thought ahead of time, I would have been prepared."
This year, when 10-year-old Johnmarco entered 5th grade, Coppola made sure she was ready for that first teacher conference. Together, she and her son reviewed test scores and discussed what was going on in his classroom. Then, Coppola says, she felt she could "anticipate what the teacher would say."
While we expect teachers to prepare for these meetings, parents don't always take the time to do the same. That's unfortunate, since the parent-teacher conference is often one of the only opportunities parents get to meet with their child's teacher one-on-one. "You gain the perspective of a trained professional who spends an enormous amount of time with your child," says Gracemarie Rozea, New York State regional director for the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). "The teacher has the opportunity to see your child interacting with other children, and is a more objective evaluator of your child than you as a parent might be."
That's important whether your child is just starting out in elementary school or on her way to high school. "Ninth grade is a critical time because it's the foundation of the high school career," says Doris Ekert, a former high school English teacher from Massapequa, New York. "Having a notice come home isn't enough contact. This is the time to talk about your child."
Too often, parents come to the meeting expecting the discussion to revolve around their child's test scores, Ekert says. "They're important, but parents need to look at the big picture. We have to bring up kids who aren't just smart. Think about the human being you're raising. It's the whole child that needs to be addressed." If you find your child's teacher is the one focusing too much on grades and academics, try asking questions that address the parts of your child that can't be measured by test scores and homework, such as character and friendships.
Teachers Want Your Input
Teachers are just as interested in your input as you are in theirs. "There are many things about your child the teacher doesn't know," Rozea says. Teachers want to be informed of any changes your child is facing in his personal or family life, and how he behaves at home in comparison to how he acts at school. Your child's comfort level in the classroom, whether he's found his niche among fellow students, and whether he seems stressed or happy are all important clues to his social and emotional well-being — and it's only by working together that you and your child's teacher can fully understand them.
"Social problems used to start in middle school, but now they're rearing their heads as young as 3rd grade, and this impacts academic performance," says Margaret Sagarese, author of The Rollercoaster Years.
With so much to talk about in so little time, here's how you can make the most of your meeting:
Before the Teacher Conference
- Start preparing early. Don't wait until the night before to get organized. Create a folder at the beginning of the year in which you store test scores, big homework assignments, and your notes (about things your child has told you or any other topics you want to address).
- Talk to your child. Ask how she's doing in class, what's going on during lunchtime, recess, and when she goes to special classes like music or gym. "You want to find out both the positive and negative," says Rozea. If you don't like what you're hearing, investigate. Talk to other parents to see if their children are expressing similar concerns. "You need to find out whether your child is perceiving everything accurately or if she's misunderstanding a situation," she says.
During the Teacher Conference
- Arrive early. With only a few precious minutes to spend, you don't want to be late. It will shorten your time with your child's teacher and affect her day's entire schedule.
- Enter with the right attitude. The goal of both the teacher and the parent should be the success of the student, but sometimes parents have a hard time discussing tough issues. Rather than put the teacher on the defensive, arrive with a compliment to start the conference off on the right foot. ("My son is really enjoying the unit on space" or "We had a great time on the field trip.") Then address any concerns in a respectful way.
- Find out the communication protocol. Don't let this be the only time you talk to your child's teacher. Ask how she likes to communicate, suggests Sagarese, whether it's by e-mail, notes passed through a folder, or phone calls. "Reinforce that you are there if she wants to talk to you," she says. "Let the teacher know you want to be that kind of partner."
After the Teacher Conference
- Follow up. If the teacher brings something to your attention that needs to be addressed with your child, take steps to put the plan in motion, whether it's helping with organizational skills, getting extra help, or addressing a social issue.
- Update your child. Start with the positive things her teacher had to say, then fill her in on any concerns you and the teacher discussed. Explain how you can all work together to ensure your child has a successful year.