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How Parents-at-Odds Can Better Handle Parent-Teacher Conferences

Maybe you're divorced. Maybe you and your partner butt heads during meetings. Here's how experienced educators say you should handle the situation.

Parent-teacher conferences aren’t exactly the most comfortable meetings. There you sit with your child’s teacher, trying to suss out the severity of the situation: Why were you called in? What might be the problem? Is everything in order? Did your kid make one too many booger jokes again? It can be an awkward, stressful time — for you, your spouse, and the teacher. And any teacher will tell you that the tension can be ramped up to directed-by-Denis-Villeneuve-levels if you and your partner have issues that are bleeding through. Maybe you’re divorced. Maybe you’re in the midst of a separation. Maybe you just have different parenting styles and butt heads in these situations. Whatever the case, you’re having a hard time in a situation where you need to communicate as a unified front — a situation that’s not about you, but your kid. We reached out to a number of experienced teachers to ask them about the best way to approach a PT meeting between parents-at-odds.

Email the Teacher Ahead of Time

Murray Suid, former educator

One of the best things you can do to prepare the teacher for the issues at hand is to email your kid’s teacher ahead of time to let them know that the situation with your spouse is strained, says Murray Suid, a former middle, high school, and college teacher of English, math, and journalism (and author of a series of books for teachers including How to Teach Writing Without Going Crazy). “Strong emotions interfere with clear communication,” he adds. Focus on giving the teacher any necessary information you think they need to have about your kid. If the student is struggling, ask something like “What specific activities can you suggest so that I might help my child do better in your class?”

Avoid the Blame Game

Rebeca Venegas, Calibre Academy, principal

A parent-teacher conference is not the place to haggle over child support payments and custody arrangements. “Avoid blaming the other parent for what has or what hasn’t happened. Work as a team,” says Rebeca Venegas, principal of Calibre Academy in Surprise, Arizona.

With everything going on between you and the mother/father of your child, your child could be experiencing emotional strain that doesn’t surface at home. Let the teacher be a window into how that’s manifesting at school. “They should be in contact with their child’s teacher to see if they are experimenting emotional issues or poor study habits during classes,” Venegas says.

Agree on a Shared Goal

Dr. Richard Horowitz, former teacher and principal, and parenting coach

In order to stay on track, come to an agreement with the other party — no matter how hard it seems. You should establish a joint set of goals for what you want to get out of the meeting, says Dr. Richard Horowitz, a former teacher and family coach in Palm Harbor, Florida. And don’t be shy about empowering the teacher to keep everyone in line — elementary school teachers in particular excel at that. “The teacher should be prepared to remind the couple if it gets out of hand to focus on the child’s needs and to ask each party what specifically they want to learn,” he says.

Go It Alone

Dr. William Lane, former teacher, administrator, and professor, and educational consultant

Do you and your spouse seem to light up any room you’re in together, and not in a good way? One of you should stay home, suggests Dr. William Lane, a former teacher and education consultant based in Delaware. “If it’s causing such a firestorm, just have one parent go,” he says. The kicker is that the second parent must agree to do whatever the attending parent and the teacher deem best for the student. Lest the kid seek an easier path with the parent who was not present. “You can’t have the kid playing one parent off of the other,” Lane says.

Keep Lists

Monica Rodriguez, school psychologist and educational consultant

Is your estranged partner lobbing barbs at you? Stay on task by sticking to a list of questions and topics to hit, says Monica Rodriguez, a school psychologist in San Diego who has attended more than 1,000 parent-teacher conferences. Also, nothing stops you from asking for a second meeting with the teacher if things go off the rails, or you didn’t get to everything. “Use it to discuss and brainstorm interventions or ways to ameliorate the situation,” she says. At home, make sure each parent has a separate set of the student’s textbooks. That way, there’s no excuse for skipping algebra homework.

Please Understand That This Isn’t About You

Patricia Heller, former educator

“When parents are going through a rough patch or in the process of separating, you, as the teacher, can sense it a mile away — the vitriol is palpable,” says Heller, who spent 30 years teaching in the New York City public education system. “And it’s the most inappropriate, selfish energy to bring to a conference. Think to yourself before you arrive: is this the best behavior for my child? These meetings are not about you. They’re about your child and if you can’t keep the petty behavior to a minimum then you need to either show up separately or inform the teacher beforehand what to expect.”