By Allison Wedell Schumacher
I don’t know about you, but I got a little deer-in-the-headlights at my first few parent-teacher conferences for my daughter. We sat down with her kindergarten teacher, who is about as kind and nonthreatening as a person can be, and learned all about what our daughter was learning and where she could improve. I found myself wanting to soak up every little detail, worried that I would forget some crucial tidbit that would help my daughter succeed and be happy in school.
I have since learned that it helps to take a few minutes beforehand to think through what it is I want to get out of the conference. For me, that preparation looks like writing a list of questions. But are they the right questions? It occurred to me that teachers themselves may have some advice to share about how to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences (many of them are, after all, parents themselves), so I asked several of them from two very different places: Seattle, Washington, and Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Linda Murphy is a retired elementary school teacher who now substitute teaches and tutors in the Seattle area. Her suggestions focus not so much on the conference itself, but on the before and after. “Let your child weigh in beforehand,” Murphy says. Explain that you’re going to school to talk to his teacher, and ask if there’s anything he’d like you to talk about. Is he having any problems? Is there anything he’d like his teacher to know about? “Your child might surprise you with something he or she has never mentioned before,” she adds.
Once the meeting is over, Murphy says to talk to your child about it. He will want to know the positive things his teacher said, and together, you can make a plan to tackle the areas that need improvement. Make it clear that you’re all working together: You, your child, and the teacher are a team!
In terms of questions teachers suggest parents ask, they generally fell into two broad categories: academic and social/emotional/behavioral.
Christina Hayes, a kindergarten teacher in Cheyenne, suggests asking how your child handles setbacks and whether she’s adapting well to her new grade and classroom. Hayes includes a question that many teachers I talked to suggested in one way or another: “What can I do at home to support her academically?”
Some phrased this concept in terms of how parents can help teachers directly. Holly Rose, who is a substitute teacher and the acting dean of students at a Seattle-area elementary school, suggests asking, “What kind of opportunities are there for us to volunteer in the classroom to help you manage the group more easily?” And Tammy Bayless-Anderson, an elementary school teacher in Cheyenne, puts it this way: “How can we help support you with our child? Is there anything you might need help with in the classroom?”
Several teachers I spoke to referred to independence and resilience, especially as they apply to academics. Kathi Titus, who is a music specialist in Seattle schools, suggests a general, “Is my child struggling with anything?”
The teachers also had a lot to say about social-emotional and behavioral questions. Heather Landen Artery teaches in a Cheyenne elementary school and suggests asking how your child is doing socially. Along those lines, Holly Rose adds, “Does my child have any friends in class? How does my child treat other students?”
And if your child has behavioral issues, Tammy Bayless-Anderson suggests asking, “What strategies work with their behavior struggles?”
Some of the questions tie academics and social-emotional learning together, such as the one Seattle-area elementary school teacher Abbey Buchert suggests: “Is my child respectful to teacher and peers during whole-group instruction? Carpet time? Partner work?”
As you think about your child and his teacher, you very well may come up with other questions you’d like to ask. But arming yourself with a list of these questions, suggested by teachers themselves, may help focus your next parent-teacher conference so it will be as productive as possible. The outcome? A better school-home connection, ideally resulting in a happier, more successful kiddo. Good luck!
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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