Take a few minutes before your conference to reflect and prepare, especially if it's your first experience. If the teacher reveals a problem about your child, you may feel that your parenting skills are being questioned. And you may disagree with the teacher's assessment.
But keep an open mind when the teacher offers opinions. Fred White, a New York City-based educator, says, "Parents look at their children with different eyes. That's the way it should be. Teachers, on the other hand, are more objective, less partial. While we certainly see each child as an individual, we also have the benefit of seeing many kids of the same age every day. That gives us a basis for seeing where one particular child is in relationship to other 7-year-olds."
Parents' expectations, White says, can be too high or too low. One mom in Missouri was surprised when her daughter's sixth-grade teacher commented favorably on Samantha's leadership qualities. "Sam's our youngest, and she always seems to be following her older sister and brother's lead," Samantha's mother says. Another parent, whose older son was a below-average student, was sure that her second child was a genius. "I was really shocked when I found out that Chad was considered average." She admits that it took her a long time to adjust her expectations of Chad and to take pleasure in his accomplishments. "I had to learn to be happy with the fact that even if he doesn't win a Pulitzer Prize before he's out of high school, he is still a success."
Approaching your conference with a positive attitude is a good start. You should also do a little homework before you go.
1. Ask your child for a self-evaluation. Teacher Fred White recommends asking your child, "How do you think you're doing? Is there anything you'd like me to ask or tell your teacher?" If school policy allows, White suggests a three-way conference, so that your child can be a part of the discussion.
2. Know the teacher's expectations and ask whether your child is meeting them. As one New Jersey mom said, "I saw the homework and the tests and figured everything was OK. What I didn't know was that my daughter's classroom behavior -- things like interrupting and not paying attention -- was causing trouble." Test scores alone may not reflect your child's performance. "I thought Brian was failing history because his midterm test grade was terrible," says Brian's mother. "But his teacher assured me that Brian has always participated in class and that his project showed that he really grasped the material."
3. Know how your child is being graded. Does the teacher place more emphasis on classroom participation, homework assignments, test scores, portfolios, or a combination? If your child has been telling you, "Spelling doesn't count on my book reports," verify this with the teacher. Find out how you can keep up-to-date on your child's work.
4. Ask the teacher what your role should be. Are you expected to review homework, help with assignments, or sign reports? Be sure to ask questions if you don't understand something the teacher tells you. Ask for examples if a teacher makes a statement that needs clarification.
5. Find out how you can get additional help for your child, if needed. If in-school help is not available, ask where you can go outside the school.
6. Know the school structure. If you wish to discuss a teacher's evaluation of your child with another school official, to whom can you turn? Talk to the head of the parents' association to learn the usual protocol.
7. Share important information about your child with the teacher. There's more to your child than her school performance. What are his interests and hobbies? What are her goals? Is anything going on at home that affects school performance? Teachers benefit from your insights into what makes your child tick.
8. Watch your phrasing and your body language. In an audiotape entitled "Who Knows What About Your Child?" (part of the When Parents Face the School series, published by Adult Development & Learning, 1984), coauthor Judy-Arin Krupp, Ph.D., recommends that parents use language that supports their child and helps the teacher see their student in a positive light. For example, rather than saying, "She never pays attention," try, "We're working on helping her pay attention." Krupp also stresses the importance of being cooperative throughout the meeting. Rather than being defensive, ask for the teacher's recommendations on solving any problems. Offer your own suggestions. If you disagree on what's best for your child, such as whether he should repeat a grade, find ways to be cooperative rather than confrontational.
9. Attend the conference with your child's other parent, if possible. Sometimes one parent must stay home with the kids while the other attends meetings. Sometimes only the custodial parent gets involved in school business. Whatever the circumstances, remember that the point of the conference is to benefit your child's school career.
10. Share the contents of the conference with your child. Be sure to share all positive comments about your child's performance with him. And phrase the "needs improvement" portion of the report in a way that will serve your child and engender cooperation. "No TV until your math grades are up" is unlikely to help. A better approach: "I know you're having trouble with math. Your teacher, you, and I need to work out a plan so that you can do better." Then ask your child for suggestions, offer your own, and check back with the teacher as you develop a strategy together.
The school conference is an important moment in the school year, but it's not your only opportunity to be involved in your child's education. It's not even the best one. Throughout the year, make your commitment to your child's education visible. Visit with teachers and administrators regularly, make sure your child does her work, and volunteer when you can. Then the school conference will be what it was meant to be -- a well-child checkup instead of an emergency room visit. The real point of the conference, after all, is not about fixing problems, but avoiding them.