It would be fitting if parent-teacher conferences came with a scary soundtrack, because there are a lot of parents who dread these twice-a-year meetings.
But fear not! Here are three questions you can ask that will dry your sweaty palms and help you get the most out of your encounter with your child’s teacher.
Before: "What am I going to hear?"
Parent-teacher conferences are the kid version of your performance review. Most employers these days require their staff to fill out a self-evaluation, and you should do the same with your child. Asking “What am I going to hear?” may protect you from nasty surprises. Even better, it's great practice for your child. Asking him to think for a few minutes about his teachers' point of view will:
- Give you insight into what he thinks are his strengths and weaknesses.
- Give him practice at self-evaluation and a different way of thinking about his behavior and school work.
- Give both of you some warning about possible trouble spots.
Then ask yourself the same question. Be as honest as you can about your concerns. If you've been wondering or worrying about a particular class or behavior or social situation, write it down. You deserve answers. Think about the things you know your child does well so you'll be able to find out if the teacher sees them, too.
During: "What is there to learn about my child?"
Would you love to have a free consultation with a child development expert … someone who knows your child well, has had many hours to observe and interact with her, is a trained professional who has years of experience working with many kids, and who is ready to share tips about how to get the best for and from yours? Great news! That is exactly what you can get in this meeting. Take advantage of the time to get the teachers’ opinions and their suggestions for helping your child get a great education.
Remember: You are the best expert in your child. No matter how well teachers can get to know their students, you’ve known your child much longer. Don't be afraid to share your child’s needs, habits and abilities. Strong educators want to learn about your child from you as much as you want to learn from them.
PRO TIP: Teachers have a lot of information to deliver to a lot of parents in a small amount of time. They get tired. If you anticipate a serious conversation, bring the teacher a cup of coffee. And if the conversation gets cut off, ask to schedule a follow-up.
After: "What's the action item?"
This sounds like a corporate strategy, but it's a great way to cut through the noise and figure out if anything needs to change.
First, ask yourself: What suggestion did you hear more than once? What concern or opportunity stuck out? What could be better? If you're not sure, ask the teacher(s) in a follow-up email.
Then, ask your child. You’ll have to tell him about your conversations with his teachers, but that's a good idea, anyway. Be sure to include the great stuff you heard; it’s easy to focus on the problems, but it leaves kids feeling like they're terrible at school. That doesn't help them thrive at all.
After you report on what you heard, pause. No matter what you think about what you heard — great or terrible or somewhere in between — give your child a chance to tell you her impressions. Ask her to identify an action she can take, which might be nothing more than "keep up the great work!" Usually, teachers have some suggestions, and picking the most important one gives your child something concrete to improve.
Pick something to focus on, and set an alarm in your calendar to ask about it in the next few days or weeks.
Parent-teacher conferences give us a chance to show our kids that their education matters, both to us and to them. It's a great way to show how much we love and believe in them.