Making Lemonade at Parent-Teacher Conferences

Parent-teacher conferences are exciting because they are an opportunity to get to know the person that your child becomes when he/she is at school. (Unless you are a homeschooler; then you are just talking to yourself, and that’s OK.)

However, parent-teacher conferences also make me anxious. Are problems happening at school I’m not aware of? Generally, the feedback is a mixed basket of fruits: some sweet cherries and shiny apples and a few lemons, too. Here is some advice about what to do with the lemons.

Lemon: A bad grade in a particular subject

Lemonade: Listen to your child’s teacher. It’s true he/she hasn’t known your child as long as you have, but your child’s teacher is the eyewitness to what is happening in the classroom. Avoid jumping to conclusions or dismissing the teacher’s advice.

At the same time, think critically: Trust the teacher’s observations, but think critically about the “why.” Maybe there is an underlying cause that everyone has been missing.

Figure out where the breakdown is happening. Is your child seeing material he/she is not prepared for? Look into tutoring, at school or off campus. Is he/she having trouble listening to the teacher, taking notes, or studying notes at home? Find out more about the classroom environment, or help your child learn study skills.

Try not to focus too much on the grade itself; instead, help your child build up the skills and stamina to put in the work to raise his/her grade. Those skills, more than the grades themselves, will help your child succeed in life.

Lemon: Disruptive or inappropriate behavior in class

Lemonade: This is a sign to step back and think, and maybe ask for help.

If your child is in special education, then bring the special education team into the conversation. The best of them are amazing problem solvers, with training and experience to match their compassion.

If not, consider asking to have your child evaluated for special education services. The school district is responsible for doing that in a timely fashion, but you can also seek help from private services, such as Assessment Intervention Management (AIM), described in this post at Rivard Report. Don’t be afraid of the special education label: It can provide access to services that could help your child get more out his/her time spent at school.

Even if special education services are not appropriate, there are other ways to reach out and problem-solve. A child psychologist can coach you about your child’s behavior at school or at home. Relatives or family friends who have kids like yours may have stories to tell about how they shaped their children to get along in society.

Lemon: The teacher is describing a child that is a stranger to you

Lemonade: A few years ago, my son had a teacher who just didn’t get him. He knew it, and he didn’t want to go to school anymore. That’s an extreme case, but maybe a milder version of that has happened to you. How do you recover from that?

Some kids just don’t fit the mold. But it’s important that they be accepted and included, and also that they get access to the academic instruction they need to continue growing in knowledge.

As mentioned earlier about grades, listen to what the teacher says, but think critically. Politely explain your point of view. Enlist help from other staff at the school, such as special education teachers, to help the teacher gain a better understanding.

If necessary, go up the chain of command. You don’t have to hire a lawyer (or be a lawyer) to do this: If you have access to a computer with word processing software and you can write a letter that gets your point across, you are most of the way there. (Personally, I am a fan of the Getting to Yes approach to interest-based negotiating.)

Think about other options. For my son, a year of homeschooling helped rebuild his confidence and rediscover his motivation for learning. Even if homeschooling is not an option, you might be able to transfer to another school in the district, or look into charter schools or a private school. In a recent post about how to research schools.

Tailor this advice to your child’s age. For young children, pay special attention to their portfolio of work, how they write and draw. For teens: Around the time for parent-teacher conferences, ask them to self-evaluate. Encourage them to interact with their teachers; it’s good practice for college and the workplace.

Even though I approach parent-teacher conferences with both excitement and anxiety, I appreciate the opportunity to learn about my children’s academic life and get a glimpse of the hard-working adults they are in the process of becoming.

What have you learned from parent-teacher conferences that could help other parents get more out of the experience?

Inga Cotton
Inga is passionate about parent-driven education: helping parents be the best advocates for their children, finding the right schools (or homeschooling resources), and enjoying San Antonio's variety of arts and cultural events for families. She was born in California but has called Texas home since high school. She works part time as a lawyer and also blogs at San Antonio Charter Moms. Her eight-year-old son, F.T., and five-year-old daughter, G.N., attend a public charter school in the heart of the city. She married a techie and is a bit of a geek herself.