The triangle of student, parent and teacher can be a positive force in education, creating a rapport and open trust that aid the complicated educational process. However, lack of communication and frustration between adults can be very damaging to the most fragile leg of the triangle, and schoolchildren of any age are vulnerable.
The suggestions below will hopefully help parents in their effort to create a partnership with teachers.
¢ Understand the types of conferences: Most schools open the year with an open house or back-to-school night. The most that can really take place is a brief introduction and course preview. The individually scheduled conferences that take place in the fall are much more personal, and parents are often given an early assessment of strengths and weaknesses that the teacher perceives. Remember, however, that the teacher has seen and will see many parents in this time.
Telephone calls or e-mail are excellent methods of clarifying assignments or explaining unique home or school circumstances. They are in no way a medium to communicate serious concerns; a teacher who receives an angry or accusative message in this manner will either reply in kind or become defensive.
There is absolutely no substitute for a schedule, face-to-face conference. If issues have become inflamed, both the teacher and the parents have the right to request the presence of an administrator, counselor or mediator.
¢ Listen, but don't forget the grain of salt: Education is a great topic of conversation; few people hesitate to make judgments and relate colorful anecdotes. However, these over-the-fence and parking lot agendas are very subjective. The wise option is to listen, especially for recurring positives and negatives, but to always remember that every child is unique, every class is unique, and every school year brings changes in teachers' experience and perspective.
The comments of students themselves are also personal and subjective. The statement, "Class is really fun, and my teacher is so cool" can indicate a skilled educator who has learned superb ways of engaging students, or it can mean a haphazard instructor who has replaced curriculum with fluff. The quote, "My teacher is mean and makes us do too much" can refer to a petty tyrant who assigns busywork, or it can indicate the passionate, dedicated instructor who is unwilling to accept mediocre effort and lack of responsibility.
¢ Prepare for the conference: Parents who are prepared for a teacher conference are more likely to strongly articulate their concerns. Written notes about the issues to be covered are appropriate, as are prior grades, test scores, specific classroom incidents and chronology of previous efforts at resolution. Specific and objective concerns are more likely to reach acceptable resolution.
¢ Start the conference in neutral: The first 10 minutes of a parent-teacher conference will almost always determine its resolution. Because so much can be at stake, it is difficult to moderate feelings; however, the teacher who feels like the defendant in a courtroom will either respond with anger or retreat to meaningless reassurances. The conference that begins on a civil, open-minded level is most likely to benefit the student. Parents and teachers who can will themselves to rationally listen to each other are setting a priceless example.
¢ Know what to do if the conference fails: Three decades of teaching and parenting have proven to me that almost all teacher-parent relationships are positive, or at least acceptable. When an exception occurs, the first option is the school administration. Mediation, scheduling accommodations and other resolutions are available. Superintendents and school board members have the obligation to be accessible as well. Parents must decide how far to take their concerns.
Both parents and teacher must remember not to turn opposing views into "good guy vs. bad guy" scenarios. In almost every instance, both sides are good guys.
- Werner Anderson teaches English as Bishop Seabury Academy and has been an educator for more than 30 years.