BY MARY ELLEN CHRISTY
November is the traditional time for parents to attend the first parent-teacher conference of the school year. In the more than forty years of my professional experience, first a teacher and then as head of school, I have participated in thousands of these conferences. Let me share some of my personal observations of the process.
Whether you are the parent of a tot or a teenager, there are some universal applications as to how you may want to prepare for the conference and what you might expect from the interaction. The most successful school experiences are based in large part on the establishment of a sense of partnership between teachers and parents. You are allies in this quest to ensure a good year for your child, so communicate that allegiance early on. All successful partnerships are based on trust and understanding.
Approach the conference with a good attitude. The teacher will have spent time preparing for the conference and, depending upon the age of your child, will have written anecdotal observations and/or statistical information related to attendance, completion of assignments, class participation, and performance on tests.
You and your spouse should also prepare for this conference by sitting together over coffee or a glass of wine and making a short list of things you would like to learn in the conference. Your list might include such things as the teacher’s goals and objectives for this year, the dynamic in the classroom, and how your child fits in to the group. Please remember that in this initial conference, the teacher is just getting to know your child and you. Asking questions like What can we do to support you in making this a productive year for our child and for the class in general? will go a long way in helping to foster good communication between you and the teacher. It also conveys to the teacher that you love and support your child and want to do anything possible to ensure that he or she has a productive, and fun, school year.
Without exception, the tone of the interaction between parents and teachers must be positive. It is essential that parents leave the conference with the following takeaways:
- This teacher likes my child.
- This teacher really knows and understands my child.
- This teacher is constructive in approaching issues with my child and can share with me a strategy for problem solving together.
Occasionally, you encounter someone who is difficult or unfair. It may be a classmate or could also be the teacher. This is a time to strategize with your child in learning how to cope with difficult situations. Your child may also tell you about someone in class who is being singled out, treated unfairly, or bullied. This is a time to encourage your child to stand up for someone else and this is a point you should raise during the conference.
If the conference indicates that your child is struggling in school, this, of course, is worrisome for parents. We all want our children to be happy and successful in school. Keep in mind that human development seldom mirrors the smooth ascent of an escalator but is more like rock climbing, where you must zig or zag to find a proper foothold. Bear in mind that if things are not going well at school for your child, he/she is probably acutely aware of it. People love to define education as preparation for life, but for a child, it is the life he/she is living every day. The process you use to prepare a business plan in a work setting simply does not apply to raising a child. Be supportive of your child and recognize his or her feelings and fears. Remind him/her that problems are a part of the challenge of life and finding a solution strengthens everyone. Often a grandparent or other adult can offer additional support in many situations. This is the perfect time to ask the teacher what strategies you might employ together. If a referral is made for an evaluation by an outside expert, by all means, act upon it. Do not attempt to be your child’s tutor or diagnostician.That would be as successful as teaching your spouse to drive or acting as your own physician.
So much more is known now about the human mind and differences in learning styles, so therapies and solutions are readily available, and successful. Avoid the temptation to become a “helicopter parent,” a “lawnmower parent,” or, even worse, a “heat-seeking drone.” These parents seek to remove all obstacles from their children’s path, thereby crippling them and robbing them of the victory over the struggle. When you do this, you communicate to a child: “I’ll make it easier for you and give you false praise because I don’t really believe you can do it.” If you want your child to have true self-confidence, remember that this is the result of understanding their own competence and abilities, not the result of you removing all obstacles from their path and telling them how wonderfully they are doing when they know that is not true. Perhaps equally as important, it will be counterproductive for the professionals: teachers and therapists. You will become part of the problem instead of the solution.
Try hard to not let your ego enter into this situation. (Your child’s teacher has an ego as well, and “pulling rank” after a conference will not work in your favor.) I have often thought that there should be a sign as parents exit the delivery room that says, “Please deposit all egos here.” There is no stronger bond of love than that of a parent for a child. But as Kahlil Gibran said in The Prophet: “Your child is an arrow shot from your bow.” Anyone who has exercised practiced archery knows that arrows often follow their own path, precisely as your child will. Remember that in the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, we learn the valuable lesson that the race is not always to the swift but to those who persevere.