How to Effectively Participate in Parent-Teacher Conferences

As the parent of a former public school student, I participated in a great many parent-teacher conferences. As an educator, I did as well.

For teachers, the activity can be rather formalistic and formulaic. For parents, it can be a demeaning and even terrifying experience. Whether your kid is doing well or not, the teacher invariably has the upper hand. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I would dread attending parent-teacher conferences as a parent. When my daughter was in second grade, I innocently asked the teacher if there were any English Language Learners in the class. She said there were two students who might be, but she thought they didn’t have any language at all. In fact, they didn’t even know to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Being a teacher of English as a Second Language, my blood boiled. However, my wife firmly grasped my knee as a reminder that we were there for our child.

When my child was in middle school, we were only permitted to meet with her advisor. This was an exceedingly frustrating experience as it would have been useful to hear from her teachers, particularly in subjects she wasn’t doing well in. Once again, however, the school had the upper hand.

High school was the worst of all. My daughter attended a well-known school of the arts on the west side of Manhattan. Her teachers had 30 or more students in each class, and taught five such classes each day. As one of 150-170, kids like mine often went unnoticed. Teachers needed to look in their roll books and parents were expected to tell the teacher which period their child was with them.

Her Spanish teacher peppered his assessment of a practically anonymous child with mixed-up English idioms such as “piece of pie,” or “easy as cake.” The math teacher took out his frustration with the central office administration I had become a part of. Meeting after meeting made it clear that the school had no idea who my child really was.

Next time out, my wife was traveling and my daughter decided to come with me. First stop was English, and as the teacher pulled out his record book, I said, “I don’t know what you’re doing in this class, but all my daughter used to want to do is play video games, and now I can’t get her to put down ‘Great Expectations.’” The teacher looked up, turned to my daughter, and seemed to see her for the first time. He gave her a little hug, smiled, and talked about how much he enjoyed having her in his class. I began to think that I was onto something.

Next up was science. “All she wants to do is watch scientific shows on PBS and the Discovery Channel,” I said. Same warm reaction from the teacher. “All she wants to do is to construct math problems.” “All she wants to do is to draw.” “All she wants to do is find someone to speak Spanish with.” “All she wants to do is read about the Civil War.”

Same strategy in each class with the same results acknowledging my daughter and her contributions. The best part was that on the drive home, my daughter exclaimed, “I had no idea that I was doing so well in school!”

Like most of us and more than many, teachers are starved for attention and acknowledgement. If you begin the meeting by providing positive feedback, the conference takes a different and more productive turn, and the good effect spills over to how your child is perceived and performs in the class. For me and my kid, parent conferences were much more valuable after I discovered this approach. See if it doesn’t work for you and your child as well.