Parent Teacher Conference

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Here's What Teachers Like Me Really Want From Parents

I taught for years, and this is my advice for developing a meaningful, mutually rewarding relationship with your child’s teacher.

Watching my second-grader line up on the blacktop for his first day of school last month, I found myself bouncing on my toes, mirroring his nervous energy. We’d heard great things about his teacher (and perhaps most pertinent to my 7-year-old, the classroom had a pet snake), so it felt important for both of us to make positive first impressions.

I was a teacher for almost 15 years, and I often think of the mom who said to me, midway through a parent-teacher conference a decade ago, “All this experience in the classroom is going to make you such a great mother someday.” I remember laughing it off but feeling pretty stoked internally. Maybe she was right? Spending eight hours a day around adolescents had to make me some kind of expert on child-rearing, didn’t it?

I’ll spare you the reality check that followed, but it went exactly the way you’d expect. Even if teaching couldn’t prepare me for parenting (can anything?) it did give me a sense of how to be a better school parent. Now that I’m on the other side, with two kids in elementary school, I feel obliged to be the kind of parent my children’s teachers are happy — or at least not horrified — to see.

There’s no single winning formula for being a good school parent, of course, and far be it from me to suggest how involved you should be in your child’s school life. Prefer to peel away from the curb after drop off and not spare them a thought until the day ends? More power to you. Refuse to make direct eye contact during homework time or get drawn into building shoebox dioramas? Samesies. But if you’re new-ish to hovering by the gate at pickup, wondering how to develop a meaningful, mutually rewarding relationship with your child’s teacher, here is what I have learned.

Aim for effective, efficient communication.

There’s an above average chance you’ll receive a note from the teacher, inviting you to tell them “a little about your child.” Keep it short and snappy. Resist the urge to pour your bleeding heart onto this page. This is not where you share your first-grader’s fear of orange fruits and vegetables, nor is it the time to explain how the last five years of sleep regressions make them extra sensitive learners.

In general, try to remember that the teacher is receiving responses from at least 20 families, while simultaneously trying to get to know their new students IRL. There’s no way they can keep it all straight. If there’s something essential you need to alert them to that will impact your child’s classroom experience, drop the teacher an email asking for a quick phone call or in-person chat.

Maintain perspective (and boundaries!).

We’d all love for our kids to emerge from school happy, purposeful, and independent. Get a head start on this goal with a two-pronged approach. First, equip your child with what they need at home and create predictable home routines when you can. This doesn’t mean doing their school work for them. Most good teachers expect, nay prefer, minimal parental interference in student work.

This brings us to the second part of this goal. Help your child build the crucial skill of self-advocacy. Curb your desire to send long emails explaining their behavior or why they couldn’t complete an assignment. Let them speak up and show up for themselves. When in doubt, hang back rather than leap forward. You’ll all be better off for it.

By all means, volunteer, but don’t use it as a way to curry favor. Sign up to be a room parent, join the PTA, create artsy bulletin boards, or organize Scholastic book orders — just don’t do it hoping to segue into an impromptu conversation about how your child is doing in school. Feel free to sneak in a tight hug with your munchkin if you see them on campus, but don’t hang around just to ingratiate yourself.

React to feedback with grace.

Some of the trickiest parent-teacher interactions happen when children come to you with tales of being treated egregiously, either by a peer or the teacher. Before you respond (or are tempted to shoot off one of those aforementioned long emails), ask yourself, “What facts am I missing here?” Do you have the full context?

Once you do your own homework, if it seems that parental intervention is in fact necessary, a few careful word choices can make or break the communication that comes next. It’s much more effective to share your child’s version of events as objectively as possible, followed by a simple “I’d like to better understand what may have happened here” than to say “I don’t understand how you could have let this happen.”

Because here’s the truth about teaching that every parent will find intensely familiar: It is relentless. When teachers are in the classroom, they are on every minute. They are not allowed a bad day or a bad temper. They’re not able to skulk in their office (or turn their Zoom video off) when they have a headache or are feeling antisocial. Teachers are not just human — they’re basically our co-parents. They’re caring for our children in the hours that we’re not. Which means they deserve the same grace we do.

This guiding principle can be applied in a wide variety of situations, whether it's responding to criticism at a parent-teacher conference, constructive feedback on a report card, or even those dreaded middle-of-the-day phone calls. Before reacting, take a deep breath and think about who your child is outside of school. Chances are that, while a teacher is sometimes the bearer of bad news, and while hearing it can be embarrassing, the bulk of it is rarely surprising.

If you accept that you’re both working as a team toward a shared goal, the rest becomes easier.

Of course you can give your child’s teacher a gift.

Saying thank you is a nice thing to do. My rule of thumb when it comes to gifting is that money doesn’t matter. Whenever possible, strive for authenticity over showmanship. I’ve received a lot of pretty things (and shiny gift cards) over the years, but what I return to over and over is the box of notes and cards I have stashed in my garage, and the most memorable of those are the ones from kids. Kind words from parents are lovely, of course, but nothing conjures up memories more sharply than the hand-drawn illustrations and loopy handwriting of former students.

Keep the connection going.

A good teacher can make an impact for life, so don’t leave them behind once the school year has ended. Encourage your child to stop by their classroom now and then to say hello. Who knows — maybe they’ll even exchange emails years later, recalling happy shared experiences or a word of advice that made all the difference.

Ultimately the real connection that needs to be fostered at school has little to do with you. The student-teacher bond is an essential one and, with any luck, an enduring one. The best thing you can do to help it along is keep interference at a minimum. And doesn’t it feel great to be let off the hook for once?