It's one of the worst nights of the year if your child is in middle or high school: Parent-teacher night, when you scramble to spend two minutes each with a half-dozen teachers who may not even know your kid's name.
You stumble down hallways, head up the down staircase, looking for the science lab or drama studio. Or you crowd in the cafeteria or gym with hundreds of other confused moms and dads, mispronouncing unfamiliar teachers' names as you wait your turn. Some teachers time the sessions, ending them with a digital beep; in other schools, student monitors keep the clock, interrupting your meeting when time's up.
If your kid's a straight-A student, it probably won't be too painful — except for all the waiting. But if "needs improvement" was checked more than once on your child's report card, you could be in for a long, depressing night.
In fact, it can feel a little like speed-dating — except there's zero chance of love at first sight.
And it's so very different from elementary school, where one teacher, who spent as many waking hours with your child as you did, could hold forth for 15 minutes on your child's personality, talents, and needs. Once kids get to sixth grade, a subject teacher may have 200 students in five different classes, and there's no time on parent-teacher night for more than a summary of how yours is faring.
"I find parent-teacher nights very stressful," said Virginia Anagnos, whose son is a sophomore at a New York City public high school.
But she's come up with a good strategy for dealing with the "horse race." Report card in hand, she first identifies the subjects where her son scored the lowest grades, and signs up to see those teachers first.
"If the wait list is long, I identify other classes on the same floor to determine if I can see other teachers in the interim," she said. And she has her questions ready: Where can her son improve? What should he focus on at home? Are there are websites or programs he should look into? How can she, as a parent, guide him?
Most important, "May I follow up with you via e-mail in four weeks to check on his progress?"
Anagnos' approach is in keeping with what experts recommend. Roxanne Farwick Owens, chair of the teacher education department at DePaul University, says parents may need to schedule longer follow-up meetings if kids are having problems. But in many cases, you can make effective use of these brief meetings by getting basic "information about what's going on with the child and how the teacher, parent, and child can work together to improve the child's performance." Ask how the grade was determined — homework, tests, participation?
Things not to say, Owens added: "My kid has always gotten straight As. What are you doing that is making him get an F?" or "He says your class is so boring he can't stand to come to it. How can you expect him to pay attention?"
"Accusing, blaming, and otherwise being confrontational tends to close the door of communication," she said.
A better approach, she suggested: "I'm concerned that his grades have slipped. It doesn't seem to follow his past academic record. I'm wondering if you can help me understand what is going on and how we can turn this situation around."
"Do not go in with an attitude. Be open-minded. The teacher needs to feel that you are part of the solution. You are not fighting with them," said Rebecca Weingarten, a former teacher and teacher trainer who is now an education and parenting coach and co-founder of a company called DLCECC/Atypical Coaching.
Promise to monitor progress from home, Weingarten added, and ask to stay in touch.
"Could the teacher let you know when there's a test scheduled?" Weingarten asked. "Or ask what the slowest day of the week is, when you might shoot the teacher an e-mail to see how the child is doing with behavior, homework, tests."
She added that while you don't want to make excuses for your child, you should let teachers know about problems that could be distracting your child — illness, a death in the family, or financial troubles.
Some schools suggest you skip teacher meetings if your child is getting As. But Weingarten says you should treat yourself — and your kid — to the good news.
"Go in there and bask in the glow," she said. "How often does it happen that you get to hear only wonderful news? You don't want to go into school only when a kid's doing badly. And then you can go home and say to your child, 'I was so happy to hear those wonderful things.'"
But don't just soak up the praise. "You can also say, 'Look, I want to build on this,'" Weingarten said. "If the subject doesn't come easily to my child, how can I work to keep this going without pressuring my child too much?"
On the other hand, if your child finds the subject so easy that he or she finishes in-class work early, "ask if there's a way to turn that extra time into productive time. Can they tutor other kids, or is there something they can do in the classroom?" Ask the teacher to recommend a website, book, club or program where your child can explore the subject further.