Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Parent-Teacher Conference: Sitting on Both Sides of the Table

T'is the season, the time of year when school closes down for a couple of days and parents are asked to come in and meet with their child's teacher. After we get done organizing our childcare around this, what's next? Hopefully, parents have some questions regarding their child's day. They might be rather benign inquiries such as "So, who has my kid been enjoying playing with?" or "Tell me about the Thanksgiving Play...Sally's so excited about this".  Sometimes, though, we have questions on our minds that carry a bit more gravity, especially if our kids are struggling socially, having a harder time with the classwork, or if the teacher's discipline/homework/classroom policies don't quite jibe with ours.

I'm lucky: I get to be a mom and have had the pleasure of being a preschool teacher. In other words, I've sat on both sides of the conference table, and so I want to share a few ideas and stories which might help you make the most of your conference. Some of these suggestions may not be applicable to your child's age, level of development, or schooling situation, but I believe there are some things which are also universally helpful no matter where your child is in their schooling.

1. The Parent/Teacher Conference is that: a meeting between parent and teacher. For families with younger kids, treating it as such will help. Unless a teacher specifically wants your child present for the conference, child care during the conference is the order of the day. (Some teachers conduct student-led conferences, which focus on presentation and self-assessment. This is usually reserved for children beyond preschool.) When a young child asks why you are going to talk to their teacher, a simple answer is sufficient. "We talk with your teachers because we want to learn what happens at school. They get to tell us about your day and who you play with." This message is emotionally contained and positive and tells our kid "I'm so interested in you, I want to find out more." This is all a young child really needs to know.

2. When it comes to very young children, keep the particulars of the conference between the adults. When we go to a conference and hear things we might be concerned or upset about, we sometimes want to double-check them with our kids. With older children, it may be more age-appropriate to follow up with them. With younger children, be wary of this urge to do so; you will spill the beans that the adults are concerned and possibly still not get good information. Remember, kids of all ages may leave out their part in conflict or exaggerate someone else's part instead. (I know this, I have a kid, remember? Mine does this too.) Sometimes our children struggle with getting along in the group, or with other aspects of their day, be it educational or in regard to personal development. In my opinion, with little kids, it's not their business to know that we might be deeply concerned. Instead, it is our business to go into that conference hoping to address concerns and to work as a team, which is often very possible, with the teacher. Often, though, sharing our worries and fear with our kids only exacerbates behaviors they are already challenged with, because they so trust and believe our opinions and expectations of them. In short, unless your child has been invited into the room by the teacher, it is sometimes best to keep what's discussed during the conference exclusively between the adults.


If your child asks, you can focus on the more positive, general topics: "Miss Wendy said you really liked handing out instruments at music time." This will likely be enough for your kid, and you've saved them a lot of emotional baggage they might not be ready to handle.

3. If possible, sign up for a conference earlier in the day. Take the time off work if need be. From my own experience, no matter how much preparation I do in advance for conferences, they are physically and emotionally exhausting. Although it seems a passive activity--we aren't moving around but sitting in a chair--conferences involve lots of active listening and usually some in-the-moment problem-solving. We are using our brains constantly. Conferences sometimes require teachers to do some emotional caregiving of parents, and even if most of the interaction with parents is relatively positive, it's still draining.  If your child's teacher doesn't offer daytime conferences, try to choose one of the earlier times in the evening. Teachers get a lot thrown at them during conferences and we often have limited breaks during conference times (because many parents will go over time), so scheduling an earlier time may result in a more informative conference.

4. Bring a list, but not a laundry list. Your child's teacher is usually only allotted a short amount of time per conference. Respect this, because there's another parent waiting for their turn too. You might have a lot of questions or concerns, so double check your list. Prioritize. What's most important? Make those the top of your list. Bringing the questions that mean the most to you will help you feel more satisfied with your conference than starting with the little stuff and trying to work your way around to more serious topics. In keeping with this piece of advice~

5. Don't wait until the conference to discuss immediate concerns. As a preschool teacher, if there was something important that needed to be addressed, I didn't wait for a conference to bring up the issue but would phone the parents at home and talk with them when they had some time. My son's teachers have never hesitated to call if there was something they needed to let me know about his school life. One unfortunate thing that can happen with holding onto questions or concerns is that any misunderstandings or negative emotions can build up and fester, with unpleasant results once the conference starts. Sometimes, as parents, our levels of anxiety or upset can blow a potentially-progressive conference off course because the teacher is immediately put on the defensive and a great opportunity for good communication is missed. Sadly, too, parents are sometimes similarly defensive and experiencing the same unwanted and upsetting emotions before they walk in the door. Dealing with serious concerns as they arise can help alleviate some of this tension on both sides. Teachers want an ongoing dialogue with parents, not just a relationship confined to two twenty minute conferences a year. Your child will benefit.

6. Listen to the hard stuff, even if it hurts, and then follow up. Years ago, during my first-ever round of conferences, I had to approach a mother about her toddler son's violent acting-out behaviors which were of serious consequence to our little group. As soon as I began to mention the hitting and biting, of which she was well-aware, she ripped into me with petty complaints: she was upset that the previous teacher, whom she liked, had left, and I had a different teaching style; I didn't play reggae in the classroom, and therefore was not supportive of her family, who were not, by the way, Rastafarian. As laughingly ridiculous as some of her points were, something tragic had happened: she'd refused the opportunity to work as a team and shut down the conversation.  Sadly, her child would continue throughout that preschool to have negative experiences due to his aggression which was, I believe, so painful to his mother that she simply couldn't acknowledge it.

Sometimes, we are going to hear some hard stuff during a conference. I know I have. All of our children have strengths and weaknesses, and as nice as it is to hear about their successes in school, some of their challenges may be very painful to hear about. Listening to what is being told to us, even when we are upset, is valuable, because the more we can focus, the better we are able to come back to the teacher with questions. If you can't believe your ears, it's wise to ask for specific examples. It is also okay to let the teacher know that the news has come as a surprise and you would like time to think about it. Ask to follow up after the conferences are done, in the following week or so. This will give you an opportunity to process what's been said and a chance to ask better questions when your mind is a little clearer. The worst possible thing to do in this situation, by the way, is to turn on the teacher. Even when your inner Mama Bear is growling ferociously, keeping your cool is going to keep communication open and be far more productive than getting angry. I can tell you from my own experience, having my person and my intentions attacked made further communication with the aforementioned mother very tentative and strained. While we are supposed to always stay professional and be like ducks, letting water roll off our backs, teachers are human beings too. We aren't made of Teflon, so if you are furious with us, it's okay to come back to us later on when we are more able to work together as a team.

All this to say...

Conferences can be emotionally-loaded occasions. On my list of recommended books is "The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other" by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. If you can read this book before your child gets too far into their educational journey, it will be to your--and your child's--advantage. I think this is one book that can give parents and teachers both a significant boost in how they perceive and conduct conferences. So often in life, much unnecessary conflict is due to a lack of information, or there are assumptions at play. When we are able to create clear pictures for each other, perceptions can change. When parents and teachers come together in the spirit of working as a team, this is when we are most able to create paths of progress for our kids. No matter which side of the conference table I sit on, helping a child overcome challenges and succeed is one of the most valuable contributions I can make to the world.

And so can you, too.

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