No one would argue that parent teacher conferences are not essential. They are the bedrock of parent school communications and they cement the relationship between parents and school. Yet many parents will tell you that they approach P/T conferences with more than a little anxiety and most teachers will admit to the same.  Being well prepared is probably the best way for both teachers and parents to reduce if not eliminate the belly butterflies that accompany them back to the conference experience.

If we can agree that parent teacher conferences are the best vehicle we have to advance better understanding between school and home then it makes sense for everyone to put in the extra effort to make them as successful as possible.

As a school principal for three decades I spent most parent/teacher conference evenings chatting informally with parents, in my office, in the hallways, and even in the gym. Wherever parents congregated in anticipation of their few minutes with a child’s teacher I made it my business to visit with them. I learned more about the children and the homes they lived in from those informal chats than from any other opportunity. I was able to better understand what I needed to do to meet my student’s needs both individually and collectively as a direct result of those conversations. So, for me these evenings were invaluable, productive and, dare I say, even enjoyable. And yet, I won’t deny that there were times I felt a good deal of anxiety because during the course of the evening I had to meet with some people who were not necessarily my greatest fans. From my point of view these people were unreasonable and excessively demanding.

Make two lists, one of the things you want to tell the teacher about your child, and the second, questions of what you want to know about your child’s school your experience.

My formula for making a parent teacher evening a success can be reduced to a single word: preparedness. I spent a lot of time preparing for conference nights. I familiarized myself with the children’s records and their progress, reviewed problem areas and made sure that I was fully updated about all curriculum issues.

I know the same is true of most teachers. They prepare themselves well. They spend many hours evaluating their students so as to be able to form a thorough and unbiased understanding of each child's strengths and weaknesses. They review and summarize the information they want to share and have high expectations of the meetings. In the process they will have lowered, if not eliminated, their own inordinate anxiety.

So what should parents do? Here are some thoughts.

Be Prepared:

That word again: preparedness. Make two lists, one of the things you want to tell the teacher about your child, and the second, questions of what you want to know about your child’s school your experience. Remember though, you are sharing information not complaining. You are not griping but helping the teacher understand your child better. And when you ask questions you are not interrogating but helping yourself understand.

First, listen to the teacher's report, without interruption unless you don't understand what is being said. Remember, especially in younger grades, the teacher spends more time with your child than you do He or she has lots of information (sometimes more than you want them to have) about you child's life.  You want to know what the teacher thinks about how you child is doing, beyond the grades you read in the report card or progress report. Then share with the teacher how you see your child's academic and social progress; does it appear to be an endurance test or an enjoyable experience. Share what does he/she tells you and what you read between the lines; what you observe when he/she does homework and when he/she is with his friends. That’s from your first list.

From your second list you will look for answers beyond the brief words in the report card. You want to learn more about your child's social skills, about the study skills he is learning and about any weaknesses or problems. You want to know about the kind of effort he makes and you want to know whether the teacher believes he is working to capacity whether he is making a serious effort to maximize his potential.  Ask about friends, and how your child socializes, ask about developing character traits; what's the teachers perspective about how you child is developing into a "mentch"?  You will want to hear any small anecdote that might shed light on how he feels about himself and the level of his self confidence. Finally ask whether there is any area where you might be of help and precisely the kind of help the teacher suggests.

The most productive conferences are those that both the teacher and the parent are prepared and each wants to share rather than confront; where neither is intimidated and both recognize that the success of the evening and ultimately the child depends upon their cooperation.

The discussion must evolve around the suggestions of the teacher rather than the shortcomings of the child.

Things to Remember During the Conference:

We have agreed that there is added level of anxiety which accompanies parent-teacher conferences and can lead to defensive posturing on both the part of parents and the teacher. That is the worst possible way to approach any meeting let alone one between partners as the home and school are. It good to keep reminding oneself that working cooperatively, even if  "she is the meanest teacher in the school" "my kid hates this teacher" "he is so unsympathetic" and so on, (I don't need to spell it out any more than that, do I?) you need to work together for the sake of the child. I have found that, more often than not, even when parents came predisposed not to like the teacher, when they actually sat down opposite one another things suddenly changed. The teacher appeared far more reasonable and sympathetic than the child would have had the parents believe.

So, put on a smile and be open-minded.

While you want to look at the teacher directly while he/she speaks, it is frequently helpful to take notes. You will want to review some of the points you heard with your child when you get home and it is important to be precise. Ask the teacher for specific ideas: what strategies do you have to get my Berel to improve his reading skills? How can I get Moshe to be more aware of the importance of reviewing his work?

Towards the end of the conference, it is a good idea to review with the teacher the points that were brought up and what steps should be taken at home.

After the Conference:

For those of you who are bursting with pride by the end of the night I have no words of advice. Go ahead "shep nachas" bask in the glow and warmth of it. To those who feel that they learned nothing new and the effort was more perfunctory than anything else, I would say that it is important that you come to every event regardless. The teacher needs to feel you care enough to make the effort. To the majority of parents who get mixed reports, it is essential to put things into perspective and concentrate on helping your little Debbie and Mendy improve in the areas the teacher suggested. It is not a good idea to fudge anything, to rationalize and put off dealing with it. Remember, the teacher thought it was important enough to discuss with you and made some positive suggestions, so you need to concentrate on making them a reality.

Of course you will not simply unload all you anxiety on you child, and scolding won't help. You will concentrate on what you can do together to make the next report a more positive one. You will accentuate the positive and discuss where he/she needs improve. The discussion must evolve around the suggestions of the teacher rather than the shortcomings of the child. It is good to be forthright with your child; it is after all his life you are discussing, but you must concentrate on what comes next, not what happened before.

Talk about what your child needs to do, not about him. Telling the child "the teacher said you could write more evenly" will get you a lot further that saying "the teacher said you are sloppy" or "the teacher said a few more minutes of study before the test would help you remember" not "the teacher said you are lazy". Always be encouraging but not unrealistic. Telling a child you would get a better grade if you spent more time reviewing is a positive thing but telling him you could get straight "A"s, may be unrealistic. Tell him how you can help him. "I'll make sure you have a quiet place to study" or "I will help you with the review questions" will make him consider your suggestions more seriously.

Punishing a child for something you heard from the teacher will most likely be counterproductive. He will feel angry at the teacher for betraying a confidence and at you for taking the teacher's side. Rather, sit him down and discuss the issue. Look for a solution to what led him to do what he did in the first place.

Encourage your child to improve work habits by listing all the things he does well, first and then adding that he could probably do better if he was more careful at: following directions, completing assignments on time or taking more pride in good work, or whatever.

Finally, Follow-up:

Keep in touch with your child’s teacher. Contact the teacher immediately when you see a problem developing. Discussing it with other parents will not improve the situation.