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Make the Most of Parent-Teacher Conferences

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Nov. 8, 1999 – What is it about sitting in a too-small chair with knees banging on a too-small desk and listening to a teacher that automatically makes you want to raise your hand before speaking?

It's that time of year again: Parent-teacher conferences have rolled around. But, education experts insist, teachers aren't to be feared by parents. With a little preparation, they say, conferences can be fruitful.

Preparation and an open mind are the keys to a successful conference, said Mary Patton, coordinator of Pupil Personnel Services for the Department of Defense Education Agency here. Pupil Personnel Services is the department that oversees school counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers.

"Remember that it's in the children's best interests for parents and teachers to be on the same side," Patton said. She suggested parents sit down with their children before the conference and discuss what's happening at school. They should list their children's responses and prepare to discuss them at the conference, she said.

Some issues parents should ask their children about include:

o What subject do you enjoy most?

o Which subject is especially easy or difficult?

o Are you involved in any special programs?

To keep children from becoming too nervous, Patton said, it's also important to keep them informed along the way.

"Parents should share the lists with their children, and let them know they'll discuss the conference with them afterward," she said. If the teacher agrees, have your child with you in the conference. This is particularly a good idea if you already know you'll need to make an improvement plan for your child's performance, she added.

During the conference, Patton said, parents should keep an open mind and always start with something positive. If parents get to a conference and they haven't armed themselves with a positive comment, they should take a second to look around the classroom, she said.

"Most teachers work very hard to make a nice, warm atmosphere for your child to work in," she said. "You can always mention that."

Conversely, teachers should always have something positive to say about their students. "If the teacher doesn't tell you something positive about your child, ask," Patton said.

Parents should share their lists with the teachers and make sure they let the teachers know their children were involved in making them. Then they should ask to see examples of their children's written work.

Some other areas to inquire about, if applicable, are:

o Homework policy. "Especially if your child doesn't seem to be handing in the homework," Patton said.

o Grading system. She said grading systems differ from area to area.

o Is the child performing at grade level? "Especially during the first conference, it's good to know whether or not your child is reading and performing math at grade level," Patton said.

o Special programs. "If your child is having trouble learning, maybe it's worth looking at an evaluation for a learning-disabilities class," she said. "If English is a second language for either the student or the parent, that should be looked at, and gifted and talented programs are something else to consider."

o Social skills. "Sometimes children who have not been around a lot of other children at an early age don't really relate well to other children," Patton said. "It's difficult if they don't know how to share and play"

Before they leave the conference, parents should review what was said with the teacher, Patton said. "Sometimes what we say and what we hear are a little bit different," she said.

She said some parents find it helpful to take notes during the conference. "You've come in with a written list. It's a good idea to go out with one," she said. This makes it easier for parents to share what happened at the conference with their children.

Parents shouldn't let language differences stand in their way of attending a conference, Patton said. She suggested parents contact the school about having a translator available. Other avenues might be to have a friend or neighbor attend as a translator.

Parents should always discuss the conference with their children and point out the positive things that were said first, Patton said.

"Your child is already nervous thinking the teacher is going to tell Mom or Dad all the negative things," she said. "Your child needs to know that parent-teacher conferences aren't necessarily a negative thing, that they're meant to help."

Sometimes issues arise that can't be resolved by just talking to the teacher, or perhaps the teacher is part of the problem. "First, try to solve the problem with the teacher," Patton said. "If you can't solve it with the teacher, it's fair to tell the teacher that you feel you need intervention."

That intervention should probably first come in the form of the school guidance counselor, Patton said. "Ask the guidance counselor what to do," she said. "It might even be a good idea to have a conference with the guidance counselor and the teacher."

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