It was my second year teaching and I thought I had everything figured out. My seventh graders were doing great in their classes and I was imparting sage advice left and right during mentoring sessions. Nothing could slow me down. Nothing, that is, until parent-teacher conferences came around. As it turned out, over the course of the previous academic quarter, my advice had been less than satisfactory. Several parents approached me with fair criticisms and certainly knocked me down a few pegs. Pretty quickly I realized that I didn’t actually have it all figured out—and I still don’t.
That humbling round of meetings notwithstanding, I actually love parent-teacher conferences. I’ve received a lot of good advice and seen many useful examples, now as both teacher and parent, that have helped make these meetings more productive as well as more cordial and enjoyable. Below are a few of the principles and practical pointers that have helped me and that I hope can be useful for others.
I’m relatively new to the parent side of these conferences, as my oldest is only in first grade. After the first conferences at my children’s school, I realized that even though I’ve done this hundreds of times wearing my teacher hat, being a parent at conferences is a whole different ball game! It’s more personal. Much more seems to be at stake when the child you’re discussing is your own. So it was a great comfort to sit down for the first round of conferences and have my children’s teachers begin our meetings with prayer.
With a packed schedule of back-to-back meetings, it is tempting to get right to brass tacks, but our work is always done better and our conversations are more fruitful when they are directed by the Holy Spirit. But if you are in a setting in which communal prayer would not be appropriate, if you really only have five or six minutes, or if it’s simply not your style, you can just say a quick prayer in your heart before each meeting for the person on the other side of the desk and the child for whom you are both working.
Even more important than the prayer to start the meeting is the preparatory prayer before the day of conferences begins. Our headmaster always encourages us to take a copy of our schedule of meetings with us to the chapel. For teachers, that time of prayer is vital for collecting our thoughts and asking for the grace to become good conduits for the wisdom that God wants to communicate through us. Parents too should reflect, with the help of the Holy Spirit, on what questions, topics, and suggestions we should bring to our children’s teachers.
A Shared Vision
The most effective conferences occur within a parent-teacher relationship where everyone shares a vision for the future of the student. To this end, it is important for us as parents to have a clear picture of the end goal for our children. In other words, we want to have an ideal in mind. What kind of man do I want my son to be? What virtues should my child embody? And which of those virtues do we need to focus on during this period in his life?
Once we have determined, for instance, that honesty, generosity, and industriousness are traits we want our children to attain, we can work with their teachers to set specific game plans for growth in those areas. What are some goals, specific and general, that we can set for him? What benchmarks or milestones can he reach this academic quarter or year? As teachers we should have in mind concrete ways that our classes and our mentoring can help our students grow in more than just subject knowledge.
Working toward this shared vision is the foundation for trust between parents and teachers. When both parties know that they are on the same team, with the same goal in mind, namely, the good of the child, an effective partnership can exist. This trust is an essential ingredient for successful parent-teacher conferences. Once we assume a shared vision, I believe the onus for strengthening this trust between parents and teachers then falls on the teachers, who need to communicate to the parents, through word and deed, a loving care for their childrean. Of course the parents love their child. They want to know, “Does his teacher love him?” I wrote about this need for positive communications in a previous article on Communicating with Parents.
To have this shared vision, and to know what the boy needs, we really need to know him. As a teacher, I need to have a deep and intimate understanding, not only of seventh grade boys generally, but of each one of my seventh grade boys individually. Spending time with them where they are is an important aspect of this, but I also need to learn from their parents, who are the experts on their children par excellence. And as parents we need to learn from our children’s teachers, who see the student in academic and social settings much more than we do and who have the case histories of hundreds if not thousands of other students as reference.
To understand the child we, both teachers and parents, need to ask questions. Not only does it help us to get to know our students/children better, but it also shows our thoughtful care. Here are a few examples of specific and intentional questions that may be helpful in upcoming conferences:
- Is he respectful and attentive during class?
- Does he help out in the classroom?
- Is he easily distracted or distracting?
- Is he generally prepared for class? Is his locker/desk neat?
- How does he respond to challenges?
- What does he do during breaks/recess? Who does he hang out with?
- Does he seem comfortable asking for help?
- Does he act compassionately toward his classmates?
- Does he attend Mass at school?
- How is he doing at home?
- When/where does he do his homework/study?
- Does he like to read? If so, what?
- What does he do with his free time?
- What are his responsibilities at home?
- How does he treat his siblings?
- How often do you have family dinner or other family activities?
While some of these questions may seem irrelevant with regards to a subject specific conference, the answer to each can be helpful in terms of mentoring the whole person, something that every teacher is called to do, even if only informally. And for parents, the perspectives of multiple teachers will give a more complete sense of how a child interacts with his peers, how he handles challenges, and other important topics that won’t typically show up on a report card.
Creating a Positive Atmosphere
While all of the previous advice can certainly help facilitate a positive and productive meeting, the fact remains that many people on both sides of the equation look to parent-teacher conferences with a mix of trepidation and loathing. Trying to go into a day of conferences with a positive attitude is important for all parties, but there’s a lot that schools and individual teachers can do to make parents feel more at ease.
Setting out tables with snacks can keep parents and teachers from getting hangry. Offering tea and coffee can help us stay awake and alert. One former colleague even went so far as to set up three welcoming chairs around a table hosting a bottle of red wine. We don’t generally do this at The Heights (…yet) but having beer and wine available to those interested could go a long way toward creating a more relaxed, genial environment. The point is, having a cup or glass of something in your hand makes any encounter feel less like a “meeting” and more like a conversation.
Speaking of conversation, I always find conferences much more enjoyable when eye contact and listening are the rule. It’s tempting, both for parents and teachers, to take notes during meetings, and jotting a couple of bullet points down is of course a good idea. That being said, I think it’s far better that I give the other person my full attention while they’re with me. I can write my notes afterward. After all, no one likes talking to the top of someone’s head.
Lastly, to keep our meetings positive, we need to make efforts to strike an optimistic tone. It’s all too easy to focus on the negative: what’s broken, what’s lacking, what’s wrong. Of course it is important to report areas in which our students need to grow. To that end we need to present the facts along with some practical, practicable advice about how to foster that growth. We always take the advice better, though, when it’s mingled with something like a compliment. That’s why it’s important for us teachers to prepare a number of specific positive remarks about each student. He may be showing little effort in his work, disrupting class regularly, and truly earning that D-minus, but he’s genuinely funny and really looks out for the new guy in the class. There is always something positive to say. Finding and sharing that positive is a way not only to remind the parents that their son is good, and that there is hope for his future, but also to prove to ourselves and the parents that we love their child.
Parents can also help teachers in this matter. Once, during a conference about a boy who was struggling to find his work ethic, I was interrupted from my negative comments about the student’s academic habits when his mom said, “Yes, we know. But he is such a good brother to his little siblings.” This positive remark brought my vocation as a teacher and mentor back into focus and helped me to see all of my students in a different light. And all thanks to a parent-teacher conference!
So, whether you’re a teacher or a parent reading this, whether it’s the first quarter or the fourth, I hope you can look forward to parent-teacher conferences. Prepare well. Be optimistic. Do what you can to make the person on the other side of the desk feel comfortable, listened to, and hopeful. Pray beforehand, and maybe at the start. Bring positive comments. Bring wine or beer… maybe? Most importantly, know that this meeting, hopefully one of many, is an opportunity for you to work as a partner in this great “conspiracy for the good”: the formation of a child.