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How to Get What You Want from the Teacher

Learn how to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences.

Parent-teacher conferences

How to Get What You Want from the Teacher

Big Fun In Little Chairs
In many ways, a parent-teacher conference is like a bad date: The gnawing anxiety as you wait for the door to open. Your pounding heart as the teacher offers you a pint-sized chair. Then the conference itself, which consists of a few hurried pleasantries followed by a rote performance – she flashes a few tests, flips though some of your child's work, and rattles off the upcoming curriculum. You nod attentively, but all the while your mind is racing: Does she like me? Does she like my child? How do I compare to all the other parents? And then, Wow! That was over fast.

Many parents see their child's teacher only at the conference, so there is no denying that one should attempt to wring the maximum benefit from it. It's just as important, however, to know how and when to move beyond the conference.

Behind the Scenes: "No, Really, We Love Parents"
Parent-teacher conferences are designed to help you and the teacher join forces for the sake of your child's education. The cause is noble, but teachers have very mixed feelings about these meetings. They are often just as nervous as you are, and some are downright intimidated by parents. The younger the teacher, the more nervous she is likely to be, but the great majority of teachers feel at least some trepidation about conference week.

They have lots of reasons to resist. For starters, there is the extra paperwork they must crank out for the occasion. During conference week, the typical teacher assembles individual folders of test results, written work, drawings, and progress reports for 20-35 children. The conferences are also emotionally draining for teachers, who must navigate the psyches of six or seven sets of parents every afternoon. Some mothers and fathers have unrealistic expectations and blame the teacher if their child isn't labeled "gifted" by the first grade. Others seem oblivious to their children's schoolwork. Some spouses are on the warpath with each other and try to force the teacher to pick sides. A good number of parents are well-meaning but so ill-informed that the teacher spends most of the conference explaining basic teaching methods and grading systems. A few parents are outright hostile. In some regions, there is a language barrier between the teachers and many of the parents.

Underlying these frustrations is another, deeper conflict. Until fairly recently, the feeling among many teachers was that they knew what was best for a child's education and that parents should, for lack of a better term, butt out. Studies done over the past ten years, however, have shown that parental involvement is an important factor in students' success. It is no longer acceptable for teachers to merely tolerate parents or brush aside their input. Some schools even have programs specifically designed to foster parental involvement. Your child's teacher may welcome this new togetherness or she may harbor resentment about it.

Teachers, then, bring a fair amount of baggage to the parent-teacher relationship. Parents who want to get the most out of the conference need to be aware of this and plan accordingly.

During conference week you're likely to be meeting with an exhausted teacher who offers you a canned presentation designed to answer only the most basic questions. Therefore, the ideal time for a parent-teacher conference is any time except conference week. There are several ways to accomplish this.

When the conference notice comes, you can simply ask to reschedule. Putting a week or two between your meeting and conference week will give the teacher time to recover. Don't worry about imposing on her – with so many parents working these days, it's not unusual for some to ask to reschedule. If your life is very hectic and you might only get this one chance to meet with your child's teacher, it is vital that the conference be leisurely and the teacher fresh and focused on your child.

Another approach is to meet during conference week but plan on asking the teacher for a follow-up meeting several weeks later. This way, you can use the twenty minutes to get a general sense of your child's progress without feeling pressured. Concentrate on establishing a rapport with the teacher, take notes if you like, and save your important questions for the follow-up meeting.

Finally, you can jump-start the process by scheduling a "get-to-know-you" meeting with the teacher four to six weeks after the school year begins. At this point, the teacher will have had some time to observe your child. When conference week arrives, you will already know which issues are most important to your child and will be able to zero in on those.

Do not wait until the conference to tell the teacher if anything unusual is going on in your home, however. Let her know immediately if there is a new baby, a serious illness, if the parents are separating, or if the child has allergies or any other medical conditions that could affect her behavior in school.

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