I love parent-teacher conferences, but in my first few years as a classroom teacher they overwhelmed me. I was unprepared for the many challenges they present: Parents of my most struggling students rarely showed up, and those who did required translation services and a thorough grounding in high school graduation requirements.
Other parents showed up with an aggressive tone, hoping to catch their children in lies about their behavior at school or completing their homework.
I also met many lovely parents looking to learn and help their children. Unfortunately, the allotted 10 minutes passed too quickly; we could barely start on a plan.
Eventually, I grew disillusioned. Time constraints made conferences feel like generic box-checking — especially, I think, because I taught students with disabilities and always wanted to know more: parent schedules, home environment (were the conditions for good study habits present or achievable), previous school experiences and many more details.
I can only imagine that parents left these meetings more bewildered than I.
With all of this in mind, I have five tips to get the most out of painfully short conferences with teachers:
1. Talk to your child ahead of time
A no-brainer to me, but experience taught me never to assume it happens. Your child is overflowing with important information. She knows class lengths, teaching style, the subjects she loves and hates, and many other relevant characteristics of the school and faculty.
I often hear students saying things like, “Ms. or Mr. X hates me, and now I hate algebra.” The truth may or may not be different, and fleshing out the details is the vital next step toward helping them.
If your child does not enjoy a certain class, probe further: Where do they sit? Do they struggle with projects, taking notes or finishing tests? Is the prospect of entering into an hour of monotonous lecturing an ordeal? Or do they shy away from discussion groups with peers, or cooperative tasks? As you ask, you will know far more about their learning style and what to advocate for from their teachers. These questions should always apply when they enjoy their courses as well.
Particularly at the high school level, forcing students to articulate their feelings deepens their self-awareness and builds college readiness. But don’t be surprised if they avoid this conversation like the plague. Kids rarely want to disappoint their parents and teachers, even when they outwardly appear to be trying to do just that.
2. Reveal yourself; it helps your child
At the beginning of the year, I send a survey to my students’ parents to learn more about them, what they do and who they are. I also benefit tremendously from information about their schedule. For instance, I might learn that a student does homework in a loud building while his parents work, because they both have multiple jobs. I may learn more-painful information. It can be a great challenge to reveal personal information like this, but my response is that, for your child’s sake, I need to be one of the few who knows it.
3. Check your schedule and plan a follow-up
Bring along a list of available times to return or speak over the phone; teachers will appreciate your desire to be involved in your child’s schooling experience. My favorite conferences are multi-part, even ongoing — after the initial meeting, the parents visit and phone me regularly. Getting an extra meeting with a teacher, however difficult, may be a game changer. Even a single extra conversation will potentially catalyze several goals for that student and the family.
And what should you do if you can never make a meeting? Many can’t — including teachers holding conferences. But even if a face-to-face meeting is logistically impossible, you can still get all of the important information you need in a phone conversation.
4. Bring your children and let them speak
This advice circles back to my point about self-advocacy. A great way to help students excel at school and in life is by giving them a seat at the table and the responsibility to speak their truth. Obviously, parents should expect far less from their elementary- or middle-school-aged children, but by high school, I want my students to drive conference conversations. I have seen lightbulbs go off when they realize, as they speak, that their parents and teachers are on their side.
5. Address the future positively
Conferences could be mostly about crisis intervention if your child is failing any of her courses. Nonetheless, since you have face time with teachers, get some feedback about positive classroom days and future possibilities for your child. The older students get, the more ownership they take over this part of a conversation (hopefully). But you may also be curious about options — weighing trade school versus college, taking on tuition debt, evaluating the merits of a gap year.
If your child is younger, just asking about any class activities that engaged her will reveal so much about what she likes to do. And even students who struggle daily have moments that their teachers will be glad to brag about. Any student would love that her parents ask teachers for positive information and use it to help her.
Five tasks in 10 minutes may seem like a lot, but they can all be accomplished with a little prior groundwork. Talk to your son or daughter, and be present throughout the process. This means listening to your child, listening to the teachers, using their feedback to revise your impressions — and encouraging your child to be part of this plan as well.
Ten-minute conferences, even with follow-up conversations, might never be enough for you, but a bit of forethought goes a very long way.