‘So, how’s my child doing?’ Getting the most out of Parent/Teacher conferences

September 22, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

My first open house experience for my daughter was a little awkward.

After walking in through the main entrance, we were ushered past several tables of older students and adult volunteers doing fundraisers and into the cafeteria. There, we had an inspirational briefing from the principal, before heading off to the classrooms.

At my daughter’s classroom, the teacher was busy meeting the parents one-by-one. When it was my turn, we introduced ourselves and exchanged some chit-chat.

I leaned in a little closer and lowered my voice an octave.

“How is she doing?”

My guess is many parents have had a similar exchange, wanting to go right for the jugular. Some parents may have felt the way I did. A tiny part of my mind was expecting her to say something like: “You want to know the truth? Your daughter’s a monster. She’s a total terror.”

The response from her teacher was actually something along the lines of, “Your daughter is a pleasure to have in class. She is very considerate.”

One of the things that I noticed at the time, was how my daughter’s teacher seemed a little uncomfortable talking to me and the other parents. I have since heard from some other people close to the education field that teachers who spend countless days talking to six and seven year olds, may simply not be used to speaking with adults they don’t know, particularly ones who entrust him or her with their children. That’s a lot of responsibility, after all.

It was great to meet my daughter’s teacher and hear her vote of confidence in my daughter. But I felt it might have been a bit of a lost opportunity.

Recently, I consulted with some of the teachers with whom I work to get an idea of questions that can be asked to not only break the ice, but to better understand how to build that connection between school and home that is vitally important to student success.

Here is what they came up with:

What is the best way to contact you?

This may seem like it’s a basic question. But it might be something that is overlooked. Policies and procedures regarding parent-teacher communication may vary from school to school, but ensuring there is a clear line of communication is a big key to success, according to Kristin Butler, Cooperstown Central School District’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

What can I do to support my child’s academics?

Butler, a former elementary teacher, also said this question is a good one to ask. The teacher will know in which areas a particular student may need help and learning doesn’t need to end when the class day does.

Are there any social/emotional concerns that you have based on classroom interactions?

It may be easier to talk about test scores and reading levels, than other problems a child might be having in class. But this question is one that could be vitally important.

Do you have any resources that are appropriate for me to use at home in support of your instruction?

Matching up at-home learning material with what is being used in class could prove to be a game-changer for your child. Resources could include books, worksheets and even educational websites or mobile apps.

Do you need help with snacks, copying, organizing worksheets, etc.?

Again, different schools will have different policies. But there may be a way for parents to help directly or indirectly with some of the day-to-day classroom activities.

How is technology used in the classroom to support or enhance instruction?

This question, provided to me by Cooperstown Central School District technology teacher Brad Smith, can open the door to a discussion about how different technology is for children today than it was in previous generations. Students are learning through a variety of classroom activities and media. But technology isn’t just computers or tablets anymore. Students in many schools are using everything from 3-D printers to drones.

Ask about upcoming class projects

Smith also suggested that parents ask teachers about specific projects that students may be working on in the near future. Project-based learning is a big deal. In addition to helping students acquire knowledge in a particular subject, project-based learning also teaches initiative, time management, communication, problem-solving and, in many cases, teamwork.

How could my career or background contribute to your class?

This question was provided by high school science teacher Joseph Powers Jr., who is a New York State Master Teacher at Cooperstown Central School District.

“Some parents have jobs that are perfect applications of the material we cover in class, and I would be interested in having more people come in to speak with the students,” Powers said. “Not all teachers know what parents do for a career if they have not had their child before.”

What is your class’s ‘safety net’ policy?

This question comes from John Jackson, a high school science teacher at Unadilla Valley Central School. Jackson said it’s important for parents, the teacher and the student, when age appropriate, to understand what the policies are when the student is going through a tough time academically. Jackson said he doesn’t give extra-credit and it’s important for everyone to understand that upfront. Instead of extra credit, Jackson uses a system where the concepts that a student may be struggling with are incorporated into future tests. But Jackson said whatever the class policy is – retests, extra credit, etc. – it is important to understand it before there is a problem.

How can I get my child to tell me about his or her school day?

This was a suggested question from Michaela Cole, a fourth grade teacher at Cooperstown Central School District. There probably isn’t anyone who understands how your child is doing in school more than your child. I often find myself asking my kids how their day was. Most of the time, it’s a one word reply. Perhaps your child’s teacher may have some tips on how to get a better conversation going. If a parent has a good understanding of what their child is learning, they will be in a much better position to help that child if he or she is struggling. Parent Today also did an article on how to get good conversations going with your children.

Hopefully these tips can help you break the ice and get the most out of the next open house or parent-teacher conference.

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 6-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

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