Don’t Dread The Parent-Teacher Conference!

DianneDrewIt’s that time of year again when schools are requesting parents to attend the parent-teacher conference. An important component of the school calendar, this conference aims to further the ongoing home-school communication link. It’s an opportunity for parents to learn about their children’s progress and for teachers to gain insight into their students’ home and community lives.

These conferences come in a variety of formats, from whole-day affairs, scheduled appointments, evening events, student-led conferences, and even the five-minute per teacher discussion that feels like speed dating the school faculty. Regardless of the format, many parents may have a sinking feeling in their stomachs as they approach the conference. They hope for positive feedback and nervously wait for any negative information about their child’s academic, social, or emotional well-being. The parent-teacher conference can — and should be — an experience that brings parents closer to the school community and reinforces the team approach needed to benefit their child.

As a Head of School, I give clear expectations to my faculty about what these meetings should be about; their tone, tenor, and how they should be meaningful to families. There should be no “ugly” surprises if the teacher has been in communication with parents previously. I have also talked to students beforehand, giving them advice about talking to their parents in advance, sharing any challenges they may be having with certain subjects, and discussing projects they are completing.

In an ideal world, parents would show up and hear only good things. This ideal world would also ensure that they are already in the communication loop, so that they’re prepared to hear of any deviations from expectations. For some parents, this is undoubtedly their experience, having struck upon the right formula for successful conferences. For those with a different experience who would appreciate some advice, here are my top tips for navigating the parent-teacher conference:

  • Talk to your child before the conference to review recent work they have done, listen to his/her perspective on their own progress, and anticipate any challenge areas.
  • Make a list of questions to ask such as: Is my child performing at grade level? What has his/her progress been like since we last met or communicated? How can I help support your work at school at home? What do you see as my child’s strengths and/or areas of challenge? How does he/she interact and socialize with peers? Can you suggest a plan for improving this or any other area of learning?
  • The parent-teacher conference is a time for all participants to talk and listen. You have the opportunity to hear about your child’s academic progress, behavior, attendance, peer relationships, passions shown at school, etc., while teachers receive important feedback from you about what your child is like at home, on the weekends, his/her interests, needs, and dreams. In this respect, you are teaching the teacher about your child from your perspective.
  • Take notes during the conference, jotting down things that you and the teacher will each do to support your child — what needs to be done, when, and how often? Sum up your notes with the teacher before leaving so that you have not missed anything important requiring follow up.
  • Consider all the information given before jumping to conclusions or responding in anger or frustration to a teacher’s comments. Schedule another time to talk so you can spend more time on an issue and work out a plan of action. Also look to other administrators (deans, division heads, the principal, etc.) and school counselors to discuss any challenges your child may be facing.
  • Take a team approach: It is vitally important that teachers and parents work together to assist children in reaching their full potential. Respect for one another, active listening, and a dedication to collaboration will see a child thrive.
  • Follow up with your child after the conference; share what you learned and how you and the teacher may provide support. Also ask your child for input into his/her own learning. And don’t forget to follow through with the teacher, if necessary, by phone, email, or in person.

A child’s educational success depends on the support of all the key players: parents, teachers, coaches, and school administrators, at a minimum. Parent-teacher conferences, in combination with other forms of engagement throughout the school year, are essential tools for facilitating productive home-school communications. Remember, too, that your child is probably nervously awaiting feedback. The way you relay that information is equally important. Use a positive, reassuring tone and show that there is a plan that the school and you are working on together. This is crucial in letting kids know that as a team, you are all on the same trajectory toward ensuring their success.

Dianne Drew is Head of School at Dwight School, a 141-year-old independent school in New York City. A native of Melbourne, Australia, she is an internationally recognized educator with over 20 years of experience in teaching, curriculum development, and educational consulting in both public and private schools in Australia, Asia, and New York City. Also serving as Vice President of the Middle Years Program for the Guild of International Baccalaureate Schools in North America, Dianne recently gave birth to her first child.