Talking to the teacher

Make the most of the meeting


Merry Mayer


Ten tips It’s time for you to meet with your child’s teacher. Whether it’s a routine parent-teacher conference at report card time or a special meeting to address a problem, a parent can sometimes leave feeling little was accomplished. But it’s possible to accomplish a lot, even in a meeting that lasts as little as 15 minutes.

Here are a few tips from people who have been there, on both sides of the desk, either as parents or teachers:

1 Give the teacher a heads up. This is true for both routine and special meetings. When fifth-grade teacher Leslie McCarty of Monroe Elementary School in Hinsdale sends the note home about report card conferences, she always asks parents to send back any questions or concerns they want to discuss. “Otherwise I just might keep talking about what I planned to say, and the parent ends up dropping this bomb in the last minute or two,” McCarty says, leaving her little time to adequately respond.

2 Balance complaints with compliments. Mention something positive before bringing up a complaint, says Paula Eberspacher, Local School Council chair at Onahan Elementary on Chicago’s Northwest Side. “The teacher will feel more engaged and you will have a better chance of it being a collaboration,” says this mother of two. Mention something that your child likes about the teacher, she suggests. “Words are very powerful. [The] message can be exactly the same, but you can walk away feeling completely different,” Eberspacher adds.

3 Keep an open mind. Be aware that your child’s perception is just that—a perception. “Parents have to realize that children use different language than adults,” says Dr. Kathy Hagstrom, the principal of Disney Magnet School in Chicago. A perfectionist child may interpret a teacher correcting her as being yelled at, says Hagstrom.

4 Plan your words. “Sometimes parents aren’t pointed enough,” says McCarty. “They ask, ‘How can my child be better at school?’ That is too huge,” she says. Instead, McCarty suggests that parents ask questions that can elicit a concrete response, such as, “How can you to get a reluctant reader to do more reading?” 

5 Once you’ve had your say, move on. Some parents, when they feel they aren’t getting a response they like, keep repeating their complaint, says Hagstrom. Instead, ask questions to get more information, she advises. If the teacher hasn’t offered a solution and you aren’t ready to accept her response, use the rest of the meeting to find out as much as you can about the situation, or about how the teacher handles other situations.

6 Go it alone. Even if several parents feel the same way or are experiencing the same problem, it’s best to go in individually, at least initially. “If you go en mass, the teacher will automatically be on the defensive,” says Eberspacher.

7 Offer solutions. “It shows you thought it out. You don’t want to just be identifying problems,” says Eberspacher. At the same time, don’t be too wedded to your solution. The teacher may think of another solution or provide a whole new understanding of what the real issue is, says Hagstrom.

But if you and the teacher still disagree, don’t show it. If a parent feels they are not being listened to by the school, many times they end up communicating that to the child, says Hagstrom. Usually this just compounds the problem. The child may start to believe that his teacher is out to get him.

8 Go to the right person. Sometimes it is better to take your problem to the principal first, rather than the teacher. “With certain problems, a teacher could be put on the defensive and a dynamic set up between parent, child and teacher that an administrator could have diffused,” says Hagstrom. If you have already been to the teacher and are not satisfied, then it may be time to take it to the principal. Eberspacher suggests that you tell the principal that you have some concerns that haven’t been resolved and ask if the teacher should be called in to join you. If you aren’t sure who the best person is to talk to, ask the clerks in the office.

9 Don’t talk about other kids. Although teachers want you to tell them if your child is being bullied or teased, don’t expect more than just a general response that it will be looked into. “It’s very uncomfortable when parents mention other children [in the class],” says McCarty. Parents must remember that the teacher is the advocate for all the children in their class and aren’t at liberty to divulge information about punishments handed out.  

10 Keep the school informed. When teachers know about changes at home, you are there to provide them a fuller picture. If something has changed at home, it is also helpful to alert the school even before any problems arise, says Hagstrom. This way the school can be on the lookout for changes in your child’s behavior or performance. A teacher, knowing that something is going on at home, may even give your child a little more leeway in certain circumstances. 

Merry Mayer is a Chicago writer. She has two children. 

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