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How to Ace the Parent-Teacher Conference

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, PhD
It was November 2010, my son's first grade parent-teacher conference.  I entered the room with my realist hat on and sat down in the tiny chair at the table with the teacher and my husband.  I was ready to hear positive feedback about my son's academic performance and likely some less than positive feedback about his silliness in the classroom (that was his pre-Kindergarten teacher's word for his very excitable-but-hard-to-bring-back-down personality).  I was prompt, aware, and ready to go.

What I was not prepared for was the teacher's opening line: "He is the impetus for all of the problems around him." 

She did not appreciate his silliness nor his desire to help (albeit, untimely) those around him during work time.  Ten seconds.  Eleven words.  Ten gallons of tears. 

Luckily, I have become a more seasoned parent-teacher participant.  Armed with more conference experience, anecdotal accounts from teachers, parents, and teacher educators, and published research on parent-teacher conferences, I can now offer some fresh perspective on the parent-teacher conference.  

(Factoid: Parent-teacher conferences began in the 1930s.)

Which Type of Conference Parent Are You?

The Protector.  Patty Protector is the person who goes into the conference and wants to protect her child.  She is doting and provides justifications for her child's behaviors.  Good behaviors are welcomed and other behaviors are met with the "not my child" sentiment.

The Defender.  Danny Defender is a contributor to the recent generation of college students (those who are criticized for having a strong sense of entitlement and are called the "millenials").  These parents will defend their children.  It is never the child's fault or the parent's fault.  In fact, it is often the teacher's fault or the school's fault if anything goes wrong.  And if that doesn't work, then, well, it is society's fault.

The Catastrophizer.  Cathy Catastrophizer sheds 10 gallons of tears in the parent-teacher conference.  She hears what the teacher says (the constructive criticism, that is) and thinks the worst.  Of course, teacher delivery of the criticism can matter here (and dare I say, can provoke Cathy.)

The Statue.  Sammy Statue goes into the conference and sits.  He attends and hears the teacher, but does not listen.  He takes the report card and indifferently leaves the conference without much ado.

The Sponge.  Sally Sponge demonstrates great objectivity in her ability to listen intently, absorb what the teacher shares, ask appropriate questions, and then leave with a plan of action which appropriately includes attention to both her child's areas of strength and weakness.

Why the Parent-Teacher Conference?

Regardless of whether you are a Patty, Danny, Cathy, Sammy, or Sally, parent-teacher conferences are important for a host of reasons.  Some benefits:
  • An opportunity for you and your child's teacher to share information that can promote your child's success in both academic and social areas
  • Clarification of grades and curriculum (this can help Patty Protector and Danny Defender)
  • Face-to-face time to get to know one another (after all, teachers spend nearly 40 hours per week with their students). Perhaps this can encourage Sammy Statue to warm up and get involved
We can also look to the powers that be for additional advice.  The American Federation of Teachers in 2010 said that two-way communication between the child's caregivers and teachers is essential for school success.  They also suggest that other ways to build strong partnerships with your child's teacher include participating in parent-teacher organizations or school councils, reviewing work sent home from school and commenting where appropriate, keeping in communication with the teacher via phone, email, or school/grade/teacher website. 

What Should You Do at Conference Time?

Many parents can be convinced that conferences are a good idea.  Yes, they may induce some anxiety in parents and even teachers, but it is hard to argue that parents and teachers should not communicate.  Now that conference season is in full swing, what should you do to maximize the experience?
  • Open up a two-way line for communication.  Conferences should also be a time for parents to discuss things with the teachers, not only for teachers to feed information to parents
  • Bring specific questions to the conference (e.g., How do you grade homework assignments?)
  • Take note of the classroom space and look at your child's desk
  • Talk to your child about the conference so that he or she knows that there is communication between you and the teacher
  • Stay objective! Join me and set Cathy Catastrophizer free.  Be a Sally Sponge.  Be objective. Listen to the teacher's comments and avoid attacks!
Do you attend conferences with your child's teacher(s)?  If so, what have been the highlights (and lowlights) of those events?  Have you ever taken, or considered taking, your child to a parent-teacher conference?  What are your personal rules for interacting with your child's teacher?  If you are a teacher, what is your perspective on the parent-teacher conference?

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt
is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.

Which type of conference parent are you?

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TEACHING1ST 8/20/2017
Conferences can be hard on teachers AND parents. A good teacher wants communication in order to help the student. I had a mother years ago who told me on the first day of school that she didn't want me for her child's teacher and that she had told the child she didn't have to do anything I said! I asked her 'why would you want to alienate the person who will be guiding your most precious 'possession' for the better part of the day?!' She really didn't have an it can be equally hard on a teacher to have a parent make up HER mind right away, too. I was so fortunate to work with teachers who really did have their students' best interests at heart most of the time, and with parents who were concerned and wanted to help me help their children. I'm still friends with some--- and some of those students are now married with their own children! Go into the conference well prepared, as the article states, and try to work with the teacher to help your children develop their potential. It's a hard job to be a good teacher and a good parent, but your children deserve our collaborative best efforts! Report
ROBBIEY 6/19/2017
Great information Report
I absolutely hated parent-teacher conferences and rarely showed up, not because I didn't care about my children, but because nothing positive ever resulted from them. The teachers already have their minds made up about your children, they tend to be set in their ways, and want your children to fit into their box. Not helpful. The whole system is a mess. I tried home schooling for a while, and it helped some of my children, some of the time, but in the end, most of my children wanted the social interaction of school, so off they went. School, like most things in life, is a game, you just have to follow the rules if you want to succeed, even if they are stupid. Report
Just home school...problem solved :)

When the kids catch me talking to myself, we call it a Parent-Teacher conference, as I am both in our house! Report
Teachers are not gods. There are good ones, mediocre ones and there are bad ones.

I always attended PT Conferences with my wife, and the vast majority of the teachers took one look at me and spoke only to my wife - until I asked why (s)he was only speaking to one of the parents, not both. Some teachers lost it right there and started ranting about being "bullied" and wouldn't tolerate my "behavior" or "condescending attitude".

What stepped on their ant bed?

My wife or I took turns checking our son's homework, and if they didn't get the question correct, we would go over the information in their schoolbook, even trying other examples, until that light came on in their head. We dealt with a few of those kinds of teachers. The others I found difficult to work with were those whose attitude and nose indicated everything our son(s) did incorrectly was a direct reflection on us (and our imputed ignorance). I have worked with a short temper most of my life, so in dealing with those "nose up" types, I simply asked what Mensa chapter they belonged to. I would be interested in attending their next get together (Yes, I am, and above the minimum - not much, but a little). But since I've been retired a few years, I rarely participate).

The vast majority of PT Conferences we attended were perfectly fine. Information was given and received and a plan of action was prepared to address specific issues.

A few PT Conferences blew me away. I don't know if this qualifies as sexist or ageist or both, but the awesome conferences were all with relatively young women who, the instant you entered the room, you could tell was going to be fantastic because you could feel the smile and love and laughter in the room. Those teachers had somehow acquired the skills of a very good manager and knew that being positive was a win-win all the way around, even if your child was positively the worst worst distraction in class.

As another person who posted here said, one of my sons was very quick on the uptake. He was also very gregarious, and it usually took him about five seconds of looking around the room before he caught someones eye and he started to talk. We worked a long time with him (years), but he never really was able to conquer that fault.

However, today he runs his own multi-million dollar sales business that he started - with $5,000 and an idea. Yes, he still talks, but now he talks to learn about people. Before a new employee leaves my sons office, he knows (and remembers) not only the new employees name, but his wife and childrens name. If there is no spouse or fiance in the picture, he knows what his employee thinks would be the perfect working conditions, what he does in his spare time, etc., and antagonizes no one because he is truly interested - both in his employees and his customers.

IMO, our great teachers don't get paid enough nor receive enough public appreciation for their talents. The teachers in the middle really earn their money. a number of those in the bottom should be let go, regardless of "tenure".

My DIL is an elementary teacher in a very "difficult" district. She would be happy if any of the parents of her students would show up - for any reason. That's a heavy load to bear for a teacher when the parent's don't give a rip for the child they brought into this world. Report
Althought it's been many, many years since I had a child in school (the youngest is now 34), I do remember one third grade parent/teacher conference regarding my oldest. Bless her little heart. She's smart as can be, and would finish all her classroom work faster than many others, so would talk. Her teacher described it as "M has so much to share......I just wish she wouldn't share during class." LOL The teacher's way of expressing it went miles to keeping it a friendly conversation. But the teacher, Mom, Dad, and M all worked on the situation. Report
Great article. We homeschool so whenever I talk to myself I call it a P-T meeting. LOL Our dd is about to graduate with a teaching degree so I am going to share this article with her to help her prepare for P-T meetings. Report
I love parent-teacher conferences. My kids are great but not perfect, and communicating with the teachers lets us work together to help the kids have a better year, learn more, etc. I've never felt threatened or upset by any feedback from the teachers; they've usually been very supportive even when they had as we say "suggestions for improvement." :) And usually these suggestions were not big surprises - if kids aren't completing homework on time, we'll hear about it!

We actually bring the child to the conference. When they were younger, they didn't participate much. Now they are active participants, proud to help share with the teacher the reports of their successes, share with us the responsibility of discussing how to improve where there are (more rarely over time) any issues. I'm enjoying participating while these awesome young people grow up. Report
Thank you for this article! Nothing more infuriating than a defender parent to a disruptive child! Report
I am both an educator and parent of 3 teens. -- Each teacher and child will have unique experiences.

My middle child had a teacher who never took the time to say anything positive about her kindergarten students (from what I could tell). I had a high achieving little boy, who had some difficulty with good penmanship (he was 5), and that is what she landed on as the "issue" for my son. -- I never did show him any of his report cards from that year. I felt that I knew my child far better than she ever would, and since he didn't know the difference, there was no reason to "knock him down".

It has ALWAYS been my personal belief, that the more TEAMWORK is present between school / teacher & parent & child, the better likelihood of good success for student(s). Report
Long time since I had these, but I usually was apprehensive about my son and knew I would hear nothing but positive about my daughter. My daughter today is a teacher with 8 years experience and three small children of her own. I know what great efforts she makes to be prepared for the student-teacher conferences. Also believe me, she is probably just as apprehensive as the parents might be some times. Don't forget too that teachers are also assessed by their superiors. Report
Thank you for this blog!

As a retired teacher (middle school level) I have seen all these parents - but mostly the ones who just don't show up.
I remember parent/teacher conferences. I went with an agenda. For some reason, even thou I told the school my daughter was deaf in her left ear (she hears fine out of th right ear, but you have to talk to that ear) that fact never seemed to get to the teacher. Teacher would start telling me about my child who wasn't paying attention, and I would tell teacher about ears and seating changes. After her seat was changed, she would start hearing the teacher and things improved. All of which makes me somewhere between Polly Protector and Sally Sponge.
Good article for both parents and educators. Report
Hard to remember them any more, so apparently most of the parent-teacher conferences I attended were all that remarkable. Well, I do remember attending one at their pre-school and what was most memorable was the fact the teacher / care-taker I met with didn't only have things to discuss, but worked with me in looking for solutions.

I don't really identify with any of those categories, but probably was somewhere between Statue and Sponge. I listened, but didn't really go in with any questions or idea of what I wanted from the meeting. (Most of the time it just felt like a showcase of their work and being told they were doing fine.) Report
Very timely, as I have the first set of parent-teacher conferences with my daughter's high school teachers coming up. Report
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