Head of School Blog

Striving for an A+ Parent-Teacher Conference

Jill Singleton
It’s hard to believe, but next week my husband and I will attend our second to last parent-teacher conference. After nearly two decades of attending conferences, this chapter of our lives will come to an abrupt end. The occasion has caused me to reflect on the many things I’ve learned about my boys from their teachers. The best conferences have always left me feeling delightfully surprised about something I learned about my children. I remember thinking, “Are you talking about my child?” Over the years I have come to realize that the people they are at school are not always the same children we see at home. Paradoxically enough, these same conferences would leave me feeling assured and affirmed, as the teacher would have shared some anecdote that demonstrated that they truly “got” my child.

No matter how many conferences I’ve attended either as a parent or as a teacher – I always feel myself feeling a little anxious beforehand. “How can I make the best use of this time?” I ask myself. Conferences have ranged from 10-20 minutes, which is not a lot of time to cover a child’s overall development, performance, and burgeoning interests. In order to make a conference work, both parties are wise to do a little advance planning. Having some idea of what you wish to accomplish will help shape the outcome, and whenever possible, it’s a good idea to let the teacher know ahead of time about any issues you wish to discuss so that he/she can prepare.

Here are some general tips for a successful conference:

• Read your child’s progress report before the conference and come prepared with questions and comments.
• Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
• Be on time – if you’re late, you are inconveniencing other families as well as cutting into your valuable time with your child’s teacher.

The type of question asked also plays a significant role in the quality of the conference. I asked teachers to provide me with a list of questions they feel help advance a conversation, as well as examples of those questions that can set a conference off in the wrong direction. As one teacher offered, “Questions that help the conversation stay focused on the whole child are usually centered around knowing a child better so that the parents and teachers can work together to come up with a learning or social plan together.” Here are some of their other ideas:

Questions that promote productive conferences

Ask this: “Does my child appear to be working up to his/her potential? Does my child understand your expectations? Is he performing at grade level? Is she where she needs to be developmentally? What are my child’s strengths and weaknesses? What are some examples of each strength or weakness?”
Rather than this: “Is my child at the top of the class? What is his/her ranking?”

Each student is a complex profile of strengths and weakness and should be evaluated against curriculum-related benchmarks and the standards for the school and the curriculum. Straight E’s or A’s should not be your goal, and comparisons with other children is not productive.

Ask this: “Is my child getting along with others? Who does my child seem to play with at recess? Are there any classroom relationships or situations which I need to be made aware of?”
Rather than this: “Can you tell me about (some other child’s) behavior?” or “My child did not get along with …., (popssibly even last year) so can we separate them?”

Teachers use professional judgment to decide what social groupings make sense for learning. Also, children change and are capable of forgiveness and moving on, so it’s important that students be allowed to refresh relationships.

Ask this: “Are there any books/websites to challenge or support my child’s development in _____.”
Rather than this: “The homework is too easy for my child.”

Ask this: (When there is an issue) “Can we come up with a home-school plan to support my child in ____”
Rather than this: “My child never had this issue before.”

This last one is a fine question. However, if a plan is put into place, it is really important that the parent follow through on his/her part at home. It is very frustrating for a teacher to put in a lot of time to create a plan and provide materials, only to find the agreement unmet on the other end. Therefore, I encourage you to do some reflecting on how much time you and your child are realistically able to put into any extra work at home as a part of your brainstorming sessions with your child’s teacher. A little bit of extra help is far better than none!

My biggest tip is to do your best to see your child as an independent, multi-faceted being, and to remember that child development is not a steady uphill climb. Everyone’s learning profile will be comprised of strengths and weaknesses, peaks and valleys.

Some children have to pedal a lot faster to go the same speed and distance as other children in a given area. At the end of the day, we all only have so much energy and stamina. It’s very normal to see a child make gains in one area and see progress remain static in another. For example, if a disproportionate amount of time, focus and attention is going to the mastery of mathematical computation, there is naturally less resource available at the present time to attend to the mechanics of writing with the same degree of intensity.

Also, remember that stress is not a symptom of healthy challenge. Too often parents think that a child who is performing with ease is not challenged because they are not demonstrating signs and symptoms of stress. A stressed child cannot achieve to his/her potential. Do not fall into the trap of believing we need to challenge our children to the point of breaking in order to ensure that they are learning or being adequately challenged. In fact, facing all of the tasks that are presented to them with confidence and a sense of capability instead of stress is one indicator that your child is developing into a life long learner who handles challenges with aplomb.
Finally, remember that potential does not automatically translate to achievement. Your child may have higher potential than he or she is demonstrating at the present time, but the reasons for this might have nothing to do with the teacher, the curriculum or the school. Things “click” for people at different times, and this is never truer than with the developing child. If you find yourself getting anxious, step back and look at the big picture. Is your child engaged in school and his or her learning? Is he or she happy coming to school? Are teachers confident that the child is where he or she needs to be? If the answer is yes to all of these questions, chances are your worrying is unwarranted and you can step back and remember to “keep your eye on the prize.”


Questions? Comments? Ideas? I’d love to hear them! Email me: jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com.