How to Work With the Teacher to Help Your Child
The Parent-Teacher Conference

By Judy Molland

style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">As the newness of the school year wears off and kids settle into an academic routine, parents receive notices of upcoming parent-teacher conferences – one-on-one meetings aimed at helping you gauge how your child is doing in the classroom.

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  • Just in time for your first parent-teacher conference this year comes a fresh voice offering guidance on how to make the most of this important dialogue. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor of education at Harvard University, has studied the culture of schools, families and communities for more than 30 years. She is also a mother and the author of eight books. Her most recent, The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other, explores what she calls “the complex and tender geography” of “the borderlands between families and schools.” The parent-teacher conference can be difficult, she says, if the two sides aren’t communicating well.

    >Lawrence-Lightfoot recently shared with us some practical advice on how parents can communicate most effectively during the parent-teacher conference. She even espouses having the student present during the conference, a practice that doesn’t typically happen today.

    What do you consider to be the key to a successful parent-teacher conference?

    >“We” is the most important word in a parent-teacher conference. You are a partner, working with the teacher, on behalf of your child. No conference should be one-sided. All voices should be heard, and everyone should also be listening. It should never be a set, generic ritual, but there should always be the focus on the individual child, and thus it should also be evidence-based, specific to the experience your child is having in the classroom.

    What is the most important advice you have for parents as they approach the parent-teacher conference?

    >Parents are their child’s most important advocates. Their role is to bring their valuable information to the table, in order to give a much more holistic picture of the child. Parents must take that responsibility and play an active, engaged, discerning role. You can do this by coming up with a good, vivid story that in some way is emblematic of who your child is, outside of the academic context. This doesn’t necessarily have to be something positive; it could be a concern that you have.

    >On the other hand, while parents only know their child in the context of his or her life outside of school, the teacher knows the child in a very different setting – in school. So you also need to come prepared to appreciate, and empathize with, the teacher’s perspective, and to listen attentively. And keep in mind that while you come to the conference deeply, passionately involved with your child’s life, the teacher is there for all the children.

    Parents often feel that their child’s teacher doesn’t listen to them, but rather that she follows her own script. How can parents encourage the teacher to listen to their concerns?

    One thing that you can always do to get teachers off their “script” is to ask for evidence of your child’s work. The script tends to be generic, so the more you can get the teacher to focus on the individual, idiosyncratic nature of your child, the more substantive the meeting will be. So let’s say the teacher expresses concern about your child’s writing, you can say, “Could we look at a piece of his writing?” Or if the teacher mentions a problem about the child’s interaction with his peers, then say, “Could you tell us a story about how that happens in the classroom?” You really want to ground all of this in vivid illustrations, evidence and stories. 

    e="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">How should parents handle a situation where they disagree with the teacher’s perception regarding their child?

    First of all, it’s not a good idea to say, “You’re wrong.” I think parents can say, “We have a different perspective. From our point of view, this is what we see, at home.” Or, “This is what we hear our son saying about his experience in the classroom. We have a difference here, so let’s try and understand what that difference is.”

    It’s also important that parents make a pact with themselves that they won’t leave without some sort of resolution. Just as in any relationship, you don’t want to leave the setting feeling angry or adversarial, even if it takes saying very clearly, “We have a conflict here. How can we get over it in the next 10 minutes, so that we can return to this place of alliance on behalf of our child?”

    e="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">What role does the parent-teacher conference play in the overall communication between parents and teachers throughout the school year?

    e="FONT-WEIGHT: normal; FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Those two conferences in the fall and the spring certainly should not be the only points of contact. Parent-teacher conferences are far more valuable when you have had a lot of other communication. More informal contacts, and more frequent contacts, will mean that there is not so much weight on this 20 or 30 minutes, and there won’t be all kinds of anxiety about what’s going to be said, because you pretty much know how your child is doing, and what’s happening in the classroom. 

    You believe “children should be present – and given a voice – at parent-teacher conferences.” What role should children play? And at what age can they participate for the first time?

    I’ve seen this working beautifully with children as young as 6 and 7. What’s important here is that children are the only ones who know both home and school. They know how they navigate this terrain every single day, and they are the best authorities on their own experience.

    Children shouldn’t come to the conference just to listen. Teachers can coach their young students very early on about how to evaluate, assess and speak about their work in a thoughtful way. When I’ve seen this in action, children had their portfolios right there; they were showing their work and were able to say, “This is something I do easily,” “This is something I do well” and “This is something I’m still struggling with.” We talk often of the child’s voice as being important, and the child as interpreter of his own experience, and this gives that a real chance.

    Aren’t there also times when it is more appropriate for parents and teachers to meet without the child?

    Absolutely. There are lots of things that young children should not be witness to hearing, perhaps because they are too scary or threatening. Perhaps the mother needs to alert the teacher about a divorce in the family, or about a sibling who has been hospitalized for mental illness or a drug problem – these should not be the topic when the child is present. So while, as a general rule, I believe children should be included in conferences, there are always exceptions. And parents should be wise to those and not expose children to the wrong conversations.

    Do you have any final words of advice for parents?

    Beware of ghosts in the classroom! When you come to your child’s school, you often find yourself drawn back to your own childhood. You’re in that little chair, and suddenly you feel powerless and small and childlike. And, of course, that is the opposite of what I’ve been talking about: being fully engaged, discerning and active. So you have to watch for that – and that your experience may be overpowered by memories of your own childhood experience at school, which will keep you from focusing on your child. Being aware that this does happen will help you recognize what you are there for – to speak about and focus on your own child.  



    • The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other, by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Random House, 2003. Offers insights and lessons on how parents and teachers can create strong alliances to support children’s learning and growth.

    • Should I Go to the Teacher? Developing a Cooperative Relationship with Your Child’s School Community, by Susan Sanchez and Susan Benjamin, Heinemann, 1995. Provides tips and guidance for parents trying to help their children receive the best educational experience possible.


    National Parent-Teacher Association  Offers specific advice on how to prepare for a productive parent-teacher conference.

    National Education Association – Gives practical suggestions on how to make

    the parent-teacher conference work for your child.

    Related Reading:

  • Practical advice to help you make the most of parent-teacher conferences.
  • Edu-Speak: The terms you need to know.
  • Find out who's who in your child's school.

    Judy Molland is the education editor for United Parenting Publications.
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