Callie Appelstein of Kirkwood, Missouri, never expected to have her mothering style criticized when she attended a parent-teacher conference for her preschool-aged daughter.
“I was sent home with five or six parenting books about how to parent my child,” Appelstein told LifeZette. “At the time it was so painful because it was incredibly demoralizing.” She was so embarrassed, she said, she went to her car and cried.
After speaking to several child psychologists and reading as much as she could about communicating with teachers, Appelstein felt she had already been trying her best to help her daughter. It took her a long time, she said, before she could approach parent-teacher conferences with greater assurance. Now she says, “Nobody knows my child better than me” — and faces these meetings as an advocate for her children.
Parent-teacher conferences can be vastly intimidating. What if your child has been misbehaving? What if he has been skipping his math assignments and hiding that from you? What if she has been unkind toward other children in class? Sometimes a child’s behavior can feel like a judgment on one’s parenting. It’s important to remember that you and the teacher are teammates — you both want your child to succeed.
It's also vital to know that no parent should ever wait for a scheduled conference if there are any issues, questions or concerns. "You can have a parent-teacher conference any time of the year," advises North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenberg Public Schools on their website. "If you have a concern about your child’s performance, you need only give the teacher or guidance counselor a call to make an appointment. Remember, conferences don’t always have to be face to face. You can always discuss issues over the phone or by e-mail."
You are your child's best advocate. Whether a meeting is "officially" scheduled or not, communicate with your child's teacher and school as you need to, period.
Nancy Carranza, an English teacher at the Ánimo Venice Charter High School, in Venice, California, has been through hundreds of parent-teacher conferences. She has a robust list of things parents can do to have a successful conference.
Do Your Research
Most schools provide grades online today, so you can know how your child is doing well before you meet with the teacher. “If a parent is shocked and horrified to learn their child is failing half of their classes at the conference ... they will spend most of the conference being emotional and feeling out of control than actually coming up with an enforceable game plan,” said Carranza.
What do you want to get out of the conference? “So often, especially with a kid who has special needs, whatever is happening at home in terms of discipline and encouragement should also be happening in the classroom, so that you’re reinforcing the same positive behaviors and trying to discourage negative behaviors,” said Appelstein. When parents show up with a clear idea of how they can be a team member with the teacher, the conference goes more smoothly.
“Too many parents show up with no idea of what they want for themselves or their child and just expect teachers to give them all the solutions,” Carranza explained. “The teacher may bring up a need you were not aware of, but you might also bring up a need the teacher was not aware of. If you know getting your child to do [homework] is a struggle, be ready to bring that up — ask if the teacher has any strategies or recommendations.”
“Try to be objective and not let your emotions get in the way,” Carranza said. Parents may not want to hear that a child is acting up in class, but it’s still important for the teacher to communicate the truth about what’s going on.
Advocate for Your Child
“Don’t defend,” Carranza clarified. “There is a difference.” In a recent conference about her daughter, Appelstein learned she was showing some disrespect to her teacher. “I owned that as a mother,” she said.
She reassured the teacher she would deal with the issue at home and that disrespect was never acceptable. “But even while I’m accepting that my child can make mistakes and exhibit bad behavior and make poor choices, my job is still to speak up for whatever I think is going to help her and encourage her growth.”
Carranza agreed: “If you know your child has a legitimate learning need the teacher does not seem aware of, bring it up, and give the teacher concrete strategies for implementation that you know are successful.”
Include Your Kid
Several teachers from across the country suggested parents include their child in the meeting. “I find conferences with the student present to be a lot more productive than those without,” Carranza said. “This avoids the ‘he said, she said’ game, and all of you can agree on a plan.”
“You have way more power and influence over your child's life than the teacher ever will.”
Parent-teacher conferences are often an exercise in problem-solving. If you and the teacher work together to come up with a solution, make sure you follow up on those steps. You may even need to call or email the teacher periodically to remind him or her about those agreements. “[The teacher has] 150 students to worry about; you have this one. Make sure you enforce your end of the plan,” Carranza emphasized.
Appelstein said she started parent-teacher conferences as an intimidated mother, but now feels much more secure about how well she knows her children.
“If today I went into a conference [for my daughter] and they handed me a stack of parenting books, I would absolutely tell them where to put those books. I would do it politely, but I would absolutely be very firm, and say, ‘No, you’ve got this totally wrong.’”
At the end of the day, you know your children best, and are best equipped to help them. Remember that your teachers can be an important resource for how to help your child succeed. “You are the one paying the cell phone and TV bills,” Carranza said. “You have way more power and influence over your child's life than the teacher ever will.”