PARENTING ISN’T FOR sissies
Parent-teacher conferences can be daunting, especially for the uninitiated. You glow with pride one moment and then find yourself sweating about ‘areas needing improvement’ the next, all while perched on an itty-bitty chair that makes your knees lock up and your butt ache.
What’s worse, teachers must cover a lot of ground during this sprint through little Billy’s 10 weeks of school, often while their next customers lurk in the hall right outside the door. These encounters sometimes feel more like a gallop to the finish line than a meeting of the minds. I recall one conference in particular where I thought "Whoa, slow down lady, I think I had a question three paragraphs ago …"
Remember the theme song to the "Lone Ranger" (the finale of Rossini’s "William Tell Overture"), wherein the trumpets herald a dizzying charge to an invisible finish line a mile away? Put simply, parent-teacher conferences can leave us all breathless (teachers, too.)
Before you book that long weekend at the water park thinking you’ll just skip the whole ordeal, consider this: whether you’re already anticipating your next one or just gearing up for your first, conferences can be fabulous opportunities to help your children ‘make the grade’ and enjoy their school experience—especially if you prepare.
For starters, talk to your kid. What’s school like for him? What’s working and what doesn’t? Brainstorm and prioritize a list of questions and concerns and write them down. While it’s not always comfortable to do so, plan to mention any changes in your family situation that may impact your child’s performance. If you or your child has special needs, don’t hesitate to get the support of an advocate. This can be a counselor, clergy person or friend whom you believe will help you to articulate your child’s and your concerns. Don’t be bashful about asking for a translator to be present if you are not fluent in English.
Once you’re at the conference, have your list, paper and pen handy. You’ll want to take notes as the details can get buried in a deluge of information. Don’t be afraid to pause and ask for clarification if you need it and remember to take a deep breath and be patient with reports of problem behaviors or poor performance. Resist the temptation to personalize this feedback as comments about you or reflections on your parenting. Also, realize that attempting to endear yourself to your kid’s conference-weary teacher by burdening her with details about how you once earned a comment on a report card that you were a chatterbox won’t work. I know.
When the opportunity for questions does arise, I always ask my kids’ teachers what they like best about them. My son’s astute second-grade teacher once commented that Noah "loves a challenge." She really ‘got’ him and that has been a helpful observation upon which we often reflect. When I asked my daughter’s last teacher what occurred to her when she thought of Holly, I got such a surprising response that my eyes filled up with tears (partly out of guilt: she mentioned a tender poem that my daughter had written about hearts that I could not recall but lied about knowing by heart.) Sometimes we forget that while they’re churning out lesson plans and homework assignments to keep pace with stiff curriculum requirements our children’s teachers are also developing relationships with them. Good or bad, they have a unique perspective on our children’s development and can be valuable resources to us as partners in their progress.
After you leave your conference, compare notes with your partner or advocate. Decide how to respond to conference details and how you’ll discuss them with your child. He’ll be on pins and needles! Remember to lead with positive comments and sandwich any constructive criticisms with affirmations. If questions remain or concerns persist, request another meeting and involve other school personnel whenever warranted. Letting issues fester unresolved can set your child up for a difficult year.
Give those parent-teacher conferences a chance. After I got over my anxiety about the first one, I realized they’re not so bad.
Except for the chairs.
Tips for parents
• Talk to your child and prepare a list of questions and concerns.
• Plan to volunteer news about any changes in your family’s situation. Good or bad, the impact on your child can show up in his school performance.
• Request that an interpreter be present if you are not fluent in English.
• Arrive on time, even a few minutes early. Don’t forget your list.
• Bring a support person to help you advocate for your child, if needed (but leave other children at home).
• Bring a notebook and pen and take notes.
• Stop and ask for clarification if something isn’t clear.
• Ask for and schedule a second conference if time is insufficient to address your concerns.
• Let your child know how it went; he’ll be eager to hear.
• Follow up with the teacher in an e-mail or a note, addressing an area of particular concern or requesting an update.
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Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia. She has been a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy since 1995 and is a featured blogger at ChicagoParent.com.