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10 Tips for Maximizing Parent-Teacher Conferences

Parent-teacher conferences. Those three words make many parents nervous. It's understandable: Parents fear hearing the worst about their child's progress and performance, and teachers can sometimes be intimidating. Here are ten strategies to help you rid yourself of any preconference anxiety and make the meeting a productive step toward your child's education.

1. Come on time, and don't stay past your allotted time. The teacher has all the other parents to meet with in tightly scheduled time blocks. If you are late, your session may be shortened. Consider this conference the first installment in your ongoing contact with the teacher.

2. Make a list of things you want to discuss with the teacher, and number your list from most to least important so that you cover the more pressing topics first. If you rely on your memory, you may forget what you planned to say. Take along your child's homework or report card to document your concerns.

3. Introduce yourself and begin with a smile and a genuine compliment; don't assume the teacher knows who you are. A smile will set both your minds at ease. You may not realize that teachers are often just as nervous as you are about conferences! So find something nice to say about the classroom environment or a special subject your child talks about. For example, "Hi, I'm Tina's mother and she's been telling me how much she loves the science experiments you do in class."

4. Look the teacher in the eye and be ready to listen. Let him direct the conversation; the information he shares may answer some of your questions. Be sure to ask the teacher to explain anything you don't understand, especially if he begins using educational jargon that's not familiar to you. Remember, if the teacher is talking about a topic on your list but you still have a question, now is the time to ask it. Take a pen and paper along to jot down things to tell your child or spouse later.

5. Be positive and ask objective questions. Beginning with a complaint will probably close the doors to helpful communication between you and the teacher. But it can be tricky to ask questions without seeming to pick a fight. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How would you describe my child's academic progress?
  • Does my child behave in school?
  • What are my child's work habits?
  • How does my child get along with the other children?
  • How much homework will my child receive each week?
  • How much should I be helping my child with her homework?

Then, be ready to plan with the teacher some ways for your child to be more successful in school. Don't assume the teacher has all the answers. You might suggest, "We can turn the TV off for 45 minutes every night if that's how long you think Jason's homework will take."

6. Expect to hear about your child's problem areas. A good teacher will summarize a child's strengths before describing problems. But with limited time to talk and in hopes that you can help your child at home, many teachers immediately focus on a child's weaknesses. Don't be defensive, but try to determine if or how your child may be different at home  -- and let the teacher know. If the teacher says that your child doesn't work well in a group, you might say, "In Boy Scouts, David loves working with other boys to earn badges." Then, you and the teacher have some information to explore together. What's the purpose of the group, and who else besides your child is in it? Perhaps the groups need to rotate more often, or your child needs clearer expectations for his work.

7. Ask for handouts. Good teachers know how to save time in a conference, and they also know not to send you home empty-handed. They often have curriculum materials prepared for you to read. Keep them to refer to during the year  -- they can answer questions that may occur to you later about classroom policies, the social-studies curriculum, or events such as field trips. The teacher's telephone number and/or e-mail address may also be included.

8. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet with your child's teacher early in the year. At the conference, give her your telephone number and the best times to reach you, or perhaps your e-mail address. In fact, sending occasional notes during the year keeps you in touch with the teacher and shows that you care about your child's education. Most teachers appreciate the contact with parents and may even write back. Once you've met the teacher face-to-face, telephone and e-mail contact is easier and can yield better results. But be sure you don't become a nuisance to the teacher or take over your child's responsibilities. Ultimately, it is your child's job to know what the homework is and when the tests are.

9. Volunteer to share your skills in the classroom. Even if you work or have a busy schedule, don't assume that you have nothing to bring to the classroom. There are many ways for parents to be involved:

  • Be a guest speaker or find one. You can easily talk about your own job or a hobby; or you may know someone interesting who can speak to the class about a relevant topic.
  • Invite the class to visit your place of work. If you work in a store, let them come see how the business is run. If you work in a hospital, give them a tour of the pediatrics ward.
  • Offer to chaperone the class on a field trip. If you work, take a day or half-day of vacation. You'll enjoy it  -- and you'll get a chance to see your child in a whole new light.
  • Help with the class newsletter. If you are a working parent, share the job with a committee so that you have do it only once or twice a year. (And let your child help, too!)
  • Be an at-home tutor. If your child needs tutoring in reading and your friend's child needs math help, swap kids for one or two hours a week. A child often learns better with someone other than a parent, and parents have different strengths to share.
  • Send ethnic foods to the classroom. Prepare something that is special to your family  -- egg rolls, blintzes, or baklava  -- or, let your child bring in an unusual vegetable or fruit for a holiday celebration or to fit a special unit of study.

10. End with a thank-you. Instead of rehashing your concerns or your child's problems, thank the teacher for her time and conclude with a genuine pledge of support. You may want to say something like, "Now that I understand the things you're doing in the classroom, I'll be able to help more at home. I know we both have my child's best interests at heart, and I want to work with you to help him succeed." Ending the conference on a positive note leaves you both feeling that you are partners in helping your child learn and succeed in school.

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