SCHOOL TALK Parent Teacher Conferences

This month parents will be signing up for conferences to discuss their children with teachers who, after just two months, are quickly getting to know them.

While some parents approach conferences with eager anticipation, others find them unrewarding or uncomfortable. Some even dread the evening.

“I can ‘read’ the conference the moment I see the parents —the anxiety level and the curiosity le­vel,” a Downtown teacher told me. “Some want to apologize for their kid. Some want me to know what good parents they are. Some are eager to hear my advice and suggestions.”

Learning how to discuss your child with a teacher takes both a level of trust and practice. To help parents, the De­part­ment of Education has prepared a flyer entitled “Suggested Questions for Families to ask during Parent-Teacher Conferences” (available online by googling that title).

Here are are just a few suggested questions:
• What does my child do well and what does he or she struggle with?
• How does my child get along with classmates and adults?
• Does my child participate in class discussions and activities?
• What can I do at home to reinforce what my child is learning at school?

Some of the questions may seem generic, but they can be a jumping-off point to an open and rewarding dialogue with the teacher. Specific details are what give parents the comforting feeling that the teacher is really trying to get to know and understand their children.

Striving to “paint a picture of the child at school,” one early childhood teacher has begun using an iPad to document her students as they work, play, and go from one activity to ano­ther. When she presents these photos at conferences, parents are sometimes surprised. “He can do that?” they often say.

Conferences are also the time when parents can open a window for teachers into their child’s life outside of school. “If I know what makes a child light up at home, it informs my teaching of that child,” one Downtown teacher told me.

Another sees conferences as “fact-finding missions,” during which she learns all sorts of things about her students—from the way they behave and play to their parents’ ideas about education and their own experiences at school.

Information such as how a child deals with homework, the struggles parents have seen in the past, and some recent history—if there’s been a new baby, a divorce, or a death in the family—is invaluable.

Uniformly, teachers agree that the most satisfying conferences are those in which a two-way conversation takes place between teacher and parent, and both are learning from each other.

Unfortunately, the tone of many parent-teacher conferences these days has changed, perhaps reflecting the changes in our society.

A seasoned Downtown teacher described one of her conferences years ago: The parents arrived with an infant, asked to sit on the meeting rug, and the mother breastfed her child throughout the meeting.

That sort of relaxed atmosphere is mostly long gone.

In recent years, with increased focus on testing and standards, teachers are seeing a higher level of stress in parents. They worry about how their children are doing in school as well as how they compare to other children. And they worry, too, about whether they will be able to compete in the future.

Teachers are also under more stress. They not only manage and teach children, each with their own strengths and needs, but collaborate with other teachers, write narrative report cards three times a year; attend regular professional development sessions and staff meetings—and never know when an administrator may drop in for an evaluation.

Yet the teachers I spoke to enjoy conferences, and want to learn as much as they can from parents. The most difficult conferences, they say, are when parents don’t open up.

As conference day approaches, prepare yourself—it will help you feel more at ease. Jot down any questions you may have, and be ready to talk about your child. Your most valuable contribution is a willingness to listen—and honestly share whatever you can to help your child. After all, that is what parent-teacher conferences are all about.  

Connie Schraft is the P.S. 89 parent coordinator. For questions about Down­town schools, write