Head of School Blog

The Parent-Teacher Conference Dance

Jill Singleton
Over the years, I have found the process of parent-teacher conferences to be truly fascinating. Both being educators, my husband and I can’t help but engage in the experience with an understanding of the roles belonging to both sides of the table. The human dynamic at play always starts from a place of trepidation for both parties. Expectations, of course, are high: deep, meaningful conversation will take place about the whole child, specific examples will be used to paint a clear picture of the child’s performance and any teacher concerns, and parent questions will be thoroughly addressed – all within the space of 10-20 minutes! Add a layer of stress about choosing “just right” words for the occasion, and you begin to appreciate the “dance” that is the parent-teacher conference. So, given the complexity of the event, how do parents and teachers make the most of the opportunity? I conducted a brief action research project and asked parents and teachers for their opinions on the subject.

One teacher offered: “We would love parents to know how much we think about, worry about, and care about their children’s growth and development. Teachers want students to be successful and do their best. Parent-teacher conferences are a wonderful opportunity to celebrate success stories and brainstorm ways to encourage growth. Parents should feel comfortable raising concerns and fears. A conference is really one opportunity to touch base with one another and partner together to encourage success.”

One parent I asked said, “I would like teachers to provide a true sense of my child’s performance and presentation at school. We each play a different role in his development. Together we can figure out what does and doesn’t work.” Another parent said, “I expect parent teacher conferences to provide an honest, accurate assessment of my child’s performance at this point in the school year, and consider these conferences essential to a successful partnership with the school. My hope is that the teacher will feel comfortable sharing both successes and challenges, using specific examples where possible, and that she/he will offer suggestions as to how we can provide support at home.”

Personally, I think one teacher said it best when she said, “Don’t sweat the small stuff! Whether your child got an “M” (Meets Expectations) or an “E” (Exceeds Expectations) in one area on the checklist should not dominate the entire conversation. It’s really about the whole picture.”
In the role of parent at our children’s conferences, I have seen dramatic changes in a teacher’s body language when my husband and I let them know that we are also educators. It’s as if their entire body relaxes into one big exhale and they realize they can talk more naturally and effortlessly. In every occasion this has resulted in a more authentic conference, and I believe we each left the table with a better understanding of the child – her student and my son – as a learner and as a person. One thing is for certain: the end result has always been a more positive experience for my child.
In preparation for upcoming conferences, I want to provide the following tips, most of them collected from teachers and parents:

• Read your child’s progress report before the conference and come prepared with questions and comments.
• Understand that the child the teachers see at school is not always the child you see at home. Be curious and open about this.
• Straight A’s or E’s should not be your goal. Everyone has a learning profile that is dynamic and developing.
• Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
• Ask the teacher what you can do to help maximize your child’s success at school.
• Conferences are a time to discuss your child – not others.
• Be on time – if you’re late, you are inconveniencing other families.

My biggest tip is to do your best to see your child as an independent, multi-faceted being. Don’t let your desire for achievement and your feeling that your child is a reflection of you color your ability to see your child for who he or she really is. Maybe your child is capable of better work in a given subject but at this point is not performing at that level. Ask yourself, are you performing at the top of your game in every aspect of your life? Is that a fair goal for your children? 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 potential does not automatically translate to achievement. Your child may also 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 you are worrying over nothing and should step back and remember to “keep your eye on the prize.”

Parents of students in Grades 3-8 will be receiving the results of their child’s ERB scores at their conference, so I wanted to share a couple of words about the role of standardized testing as well. (Grades K-2 will be taking the Stanford Test of Achievement during the week of April 22-26). Standardized tests are a great way to gauge how your child performs on a completely independent task relative to a large set of peers on a national level. Results provide a snapshot that is useful in reflecting on areas of strength and challenge, particularly in tandem with school reports and teacher observation and assessments. Over the years, standardized tests have created much undue stress for teachers, parents and students, so it will be very important to resist placing more emphasis on these tests than they deserve. The best advice is to see these as one measure of your child’s performance in the context of the much richer and broader assessment portfolio maintained by your child’s teachers.

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