The standard procedure for parent teacher conferences – go in, sit, wait awkwardly for the teacher to call the kid “slow” – doesn’t pass the corporate sniff test. That’s not how to run a meeting, specifically a performance meeting. And that’s also not how to build a working partnership. But conferences don’t need to be useless or frustrated. Teachers don’t want them to be. They just need parents to put effort into communication and honesty.
In her book The Importance Of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups, Erika Christakis makes a salient point about parents who offer time and advocacy for their kid’s teachers. She suggests that offering help and getting face-time with a teacher allows that teacher to see the parent’s child as an individual rather than just another kid in the crowd. That kind of acknowledgment of individuality can only help a child, should they struggle.
But here’s the catch (and it’s a very important catch): The parent teacher conference isn’t about the kid. Meetings should be about the people in the meeting and conferences should be less about parents understanding their kid’s achievements and more about the teacher’s massive role in the child’s day-to-day life and potentially future.
“The parent teacher conference should be treated like a hallowed summit meeting,” explains 17-year veteran school psychologist Dr. Robert Zeitlin. “Instead, it is met with tension and anxiety on both sides of the table.”
Zeitlin suggests that it’s important for parents to remember that the tension is a two-way street. That’s because the conference is a meeting of the adults who are most responsible for a kid’s life. That responsibility should rightly feel weighty for all parties concerned. But he suggests that it can also lead to a sense of intimidation from both sides of the table.
Teachers, Zeitlin says, enter the conference expecting to be asked to throw data on the table that shows academic results (and justification for their jobs). Parents can soften that edge and set the meeting in a new direction with pointed and unexpected questions.
“Parents are in a unique position to break the tension by stating their interest in hearing how their children are developing their curiosity, love of learning, honesty, or kindness,” Zeitlin says. “You can really change the tone of the meeting.”
Wherever the meeting goes from there, Zeitlin says that parents should indicate their desire to be a partner by suggesting follow-ups outside of scheduled conferences. “The teacher will probably appreciate that you are taking on, or at least sharing, the responsibility to nurture this relationship,” he explains. “You will stand out, and you will give the teacher a reason to focus more positive energy on your child.”
Christina Renzelli is a 12-year veteran Ohio teacher eager for parents to understand that building a relationship is key. Conferences are a good time to get started. “Even if there are problems, find something good to say to indicate that you are on the same team,” she says. “Remember, teachers and parents are working together to raise and educate children.”
To that end, Renzelli recommends entering the conference with questions that not only seek to information about a kid’s progress but to enlist help. “Teachers love to help children,” she says. “And we want to work together with parents as much as possible to best help the children.”
But she also notes that help should be a two-way street. “Teaching can be overwhelming and stressful, and it is such a relief when we know the parents are supporting us and recognizing our good work,” Renzelli says.
There’s definitely a huge range of ways that teachers can be shown support. Back in the day apples were the method, often because teachers actually needed them for sustenance. Now that teachers are paid (not well), they still need some material support. Try not to think of it as bribery, even though it’s kind of like bribery.
“Take a pack of tissues,” says Dr. Nancy Gretzinger, who’s worked in the educational trenches from elementary school teacher to vice principal, and principal. “They’re always running out.”
Gretzinger places this advice in the sneaky tricks category. She does note that there are obvious parental rules for the conference: be aware of the teacher’s schedule, make sure both parents attend, ask questions not associated with scholastic achievement. However, putting in that little extra effort, with a token of appreciation sets parents apart.
Want to go beyond tissues? Gretzinger recommends a $5 or $10 Target gift card. “Teachers typically spend so much of their own money,” she explains. “Give it at the end of the conference when you are acknowledging and thanking them for their hard work and effort on behalf of your child.”
From there, she notes, it never hurts to send a card to the principal in appreciation of the teacher’s effort. The only thing left for the parent to do then is watch the effort to help their kid succeed increase by leaps and bounds.