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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

School Conferences: Helpful or Horrific?

Oct 25, 2007 12:00AM

Are conferences necessary, or a waste of time—for both teachers and parents?

The answers from both groups were mixed; some felt that the system was a monumental waste of time, a covering of the bases for any future repercussions. Others felt that they were worthwhile, effective and useful—if you knew how to handle them.

Conference scheduling varies from school to school, but most give you a brief 20 minutes with your child’s teacher to cover some complicated topics: test scores are discussed, classroom habits are looked at, and strengths and concerns are addressed. If your child is doing great, a conference is a compliment fest for parents. If your child is struggling, it is a dance of carefully phrased terms that leave many parents overwhelmed and concerned.

We Want to Help, But How?

When my daughter was in first grade, my husband and I experienced our first major conference. The teacher started by waving an expansive hand at the classroom and saying, “I’m so glad you came today! Let’s begin by taking a look at her desk...” Our daughter’s desk was slightly askew, with papers and school supplies tumbling out onto the floor. Her chair was not pushed in, and under the desk was that day’s forgotten lunchbox. “Oh, and I’d rather she not have glue supplies in her desk,” the teacher said, handing us a pencil box with the supplies we’d sent in. “And could she please not wear headbands anymore?”

Our child is bright, and she gets along without major discipline issues in school, but these seemingly small issues—the untidy desk and inability to resist gluing body parts or slinging headbands—were part of a bigger picture. Our daughter had attention issues that needed to be addressed now, before they grew into major roadblocks to her education. But what was our next step?

If you are confused about how to address a teacher’s concerns, you are not alone. Many parents become so overwhelmed they simply avoid the issue. One teacher mentioned that the resulting conferences are more “last ditch efforts… sort of leaving a paper trail of, see, we tried to reach them.” She sighed with resignation and added, “Not much changes after those conferences.”

So how can you bring about change? Information is a powerful tool, so make sure to ask lots of questions, including:

  • What are my child’s best and worst subjects?
  • Is my child working up to his or her ability?
  • Does my child participate in class discussions and activities?
  • How well does my child get along with others?
  • How does my child handle test-taking?
  • Have you noticed any squinting, tiredness or moodiness?

If there isn’t time for all these questions at your conference, schedule a follow-up appointment. The answers can help you, the teacher and your pediatrician begin to identify possible physical and emotional problems which may be hindering your child.

Donna Langerman, who teaches at Willowside Middle School in Santa Rosa, has more advice for parents of older students. “The conferences are worthwhile, especially if the student is present. They are less effective if the student is not present at the meeting.” If there are any areas of concern, Langerman recommends an action plan, with support systems clearly set out, and a contract that everyone signs. “Sometimes a student will say that a teacher doesn’t like them, but we are professionals,” she says. “Liking or not liking them doesn’t enter into it. We look at evidence, and we work together with the students and the families.”

Long-Term Solutions

Keep the lines of communication open throughout the school year. Progress reports, or notes that go back and forth from school to home may be an answer. This helps keep the three of you—parent, child, and teacher—communicating effectively.

This can be a difficult task if your child is in middle or high school and has multiple teachers. Ask your school about utilizing a program such as Teacher Ease, a website parents can log onto to track their child’s progress, note missing assignments, e-mail teachers and more.

Taking everything out of the backpack on the weekend and going through it all to organize the child may also help keep your child on track.

Your child’s teachers, principal and office staff are invested in your child’s success, and they will often have good ideas and resources for you to utilize—if you ask them. Check out www.nea.org/tools/parent-teacher-conferences.html for more conference tips.