Teacher speak at a parent-teacher conference can sound like a foreign language. If you’ve been to even one then you know how hard it can be to understand our insider lingo. I know, because I’m both a parent and a teacher myself.
I get it. We love our acronyms. Have you noticed? SEL, ELA, ELD, ELL, IEP, SST. It often reminds me of friends I know in the military. And even when we are using words we all understand well, sometimes there’s a subtext that can be hard to pin down.
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I can’t help you make sense of all the things your teacher says about your child, but if you want to get the most out of your next conference, I’ve got some insider input to share. And since parent-teacher conferences can be one of the most powerful ways to help your child progress in school, let’s take a look at eight things teachers like me say, and what they are actually saying. Whether or not you’re having your first conference of the year in person or over Zoom, I think you’ll agree that it’s always best to be on the same page.
1. “Your child needs to learn to…”
This one is fairly common. It sounds something like, “Thank you for coming, Mr. and Mrs. So and So, your child is doing well, however, he/she needs to learn how to play better with others in a social setting.” When a teacher says this magical phrase to you, what it actually means is: “Listen, I’ve got 30 kids here. None of them showed up today to do math, reading and writing as their number one choice in life. But your kid particularly doesn’t want to do it. Can you please help at home with this?”
You see, giving parents advice is about as much fun for a teacher as finding all our paperclips turned into little swords scattered around the room. So we aren’t always going to come out and say it. We know you don’t need another person giving you advice on how to raise your child, and we aren’t trying to tell you how to do it. So if you hear this from your teacher, taking some time at home to work on whatever skill the teacher thinks your child could do better with in class, will only be positive for them and for the class.
2. “Your child causes disruptions in the classroom.”
Every report card of every type has a little bubble for us to click that says “Student causes disruptions in class.” When we click it, unless we specifically tell you otherwise, it means that we feel the child is creating those disruptions voluntarily. We are asking you in polite terms to help your child practice behaviors at home that can help. And yes we know that your child and you may be really working at it already but we still need to note that consistently disruptive student behavior can really derail a lesson, or all of them.
3. “I’m a parent myself.”
When a teacher starts to speak about what they do about their children in a way that is an example, this is code for: I’d like you to do this yourself. Here’s an example. When a child is falling asleep in class, I sometimes can guess that bed time is not being calendared at home. But no parent wants to hear me say, “Hey, are you putting your kid to bed at a decent hour?” So instead, I say, “In our home, nine o’clock is bedtime. We always read before bedtime to our daughters.” Or perhaps, it’s becoming clear your child can’t seem to do work on time. I might say, “First, my son does homework, then he plays.”
Essentially, what the teacher is trying to do is to relate with you, but they are still asking you to change habits. Before you become offended, you may wish to listen. Teachers like myself have been doing this for many years. We may not be the best parents ourselves, but we have collected a lot of knowledge about what good parents are doing. So “I’m a parent myself” may in fact be more like, “What parents of straight A students have been doing is…”
And that’s the type of information you’d most likely want to know.
4. “Your son talks about video games/TV/a youtube channel a lot.”
When you hear this at a conference, the teacher is most likely not telling you that they love how much your child loves Thomas the Tank Engine or their favorite influencer on social media. What the teacher usually means here is that the child speaks, writes and thinks about something so much that their work often revolves around it. Teachers are concerned these days about the amount of screen time children are getting outside of school (averages range from 6-9 hours in the US). We would prefer that the time in class was spent on more academic pursuits and the teacher is politely asking you to help by limiting screen time at home. Again, before you become defensive, you may wish to research what experts are saying about too much screen time and the effects it is having on young people (and their grades).
5. “He has lots of potential but…”
This is one of the more common phrases I say and it often seems misunderstood. Teachers throw it around lamenting about students they have grown to care for, and worry about. What it means though, is that your child is wasting his potential because he is not interested in school, and importantly the teacher is telling you it is very clear to them. You could take this two ways. 1) You could assume it’s the teacher. Hey, maybe this is a one off and your child just isn’t into the teacher’s style. If you suspect it might be this, then you may wish to seek an alternative placement. But, if you suspect it’s a pattern you’ve heard before then it’s probably 2) your child is wasting his potential indeed. If that is so, then know your teacher is asking YOU to help YOUR child see that potential and change.
6. “Your child is one, two, three or more grade levels below in their reading, writing or math.”
Often, when I say this I feel like a tire salesman trying to let the parent know that they need to buy new tires. I say, “Sir/Ma’am, you need new tires.” They say, “But my tires are fine.” The tire salesman shows the customer the wear along the edge and gives them an estimate of time before they have an accident. It’s fairly simple. I’m not accusing you of having bad tires am I? I’m just stating a fact.
But as a teacher, when I say, “Your child is reading well below grade level”, I don’t seem able to convince the majority of parents that the accident is coming. Rest assured, it is. What can be done to change it? That is the very question I recommend you ask.
7. “What types of chores/responsibilities does your child do at home?”
I reserve this for my most aggressively lazy students. What I mean when I utter this phrase is that in class, your child needs constant supervision to perform the smallest of tasks. So much so that I wonder if at home you’ve given him expectations that other children his or her age have. If the answer is no, whether or not you admit it to the teacher, you may want to consider giving them some. It’s the number one thing that almost all of my most hard working students over the years have in common.
8. “Your child is a pleasure to have in class.” versus “Your child is an excellent student.”
Each of these means can be confused with the other. However, they are quite different indeed! An excellent student means they are doing the work and learning a lot. If your child is a pleasure to have in class, it means they are making my job easier and I appreciate it. Hopefully, you hear them both together. But if you don’t, double check which is which. One is best for them, and the other is best for your teacher.
BONUS: “I wish I had 32 students like your child.”
If you hear this, take your student immediately to ice cream, because this says it all. Every teacher has dreamt of a perfect class. And if your child is the image they think of when they envision that dream job then congratulations Dad. You’re doing great.
Whatever your child’s teacher says at conference, remember you have a choice on how to react. Keep in mind that teachers are not out to get your kid. They just want to do their job. Listen to what they are telling you, and try to hear what they mean. If you need more clarity ask them. Together, with a bit of patience and understanding, just about any parent and any teacher can make a powerful combination to help just about any student. You’ll see.
Just be sure to listen too.
Thomas Courtney is a fifth grade teacher in San Diego. His daughter, Onora, is a fifth grader in his colleague’s classroom.