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Take Back the Night

May 9, 2009 | by Leah Pollack

A user-friendly guide to parent-teacher conferences.

For the first few years of our children's education, parent-teacher conferences are usually a breeze. Our offspring are majoring in coloring and doing just fine even if their crayons sometimes slip outside the lines and their musical skills are ranked on enthusiasm and not talent. As our children grow older, however, life gets more complicated -- in all respects.

Sometimes parent-teacher conferences are still a breeze. Your child is an all-A student, eager and cooperative and beloved by all (pinch me, I must be dreaming). Sometimes. But all too frequently that is not the case. There are learning issues, social issues, emotional issues, and possibly even (dare I say it?) poor teaching.

Most teachers mean well. Most parents try hard. So how can we reach common ground at these parent-teacher conferences?

I had an infuriating experience one evening about four years ago. Sitting across from my son's teacher (and fresh from a Mel Levine lecture on different children with different minds) I explained that even making an effort ("He just needs to try harder!") is more difficult for this child than for his peers. Awaiting an understanding response, I was rendered speechless by his teacher's quip: "Tough for him."

And that wasn't an isolated incident, or the only child. I've been told, "If only you would give her more attention…"(Why are you so sure I'm not?) Or "You need to hire a tutor." (Do you have any idea how many I've tried? Have you met any really good ones?) "If only you didn't let your child get lost in the shuffle." (I don't treat my children like a deck of cards and maybe you're projecting!)

I usually hold my tongue (and temper) until we leave the school at which point only an hour in a hot bath will calm me down! But I've witnessed all too many meetings degenerate into screaming matches. Blames and accusations fly back and forth.

If only they had a different teacher….If only they had better parents… As with many arguments, the truth is often somewhere in the middle. And like custody battles, the real victim is frequently the child.

Of course there are poor teachers. Teachers who can't handle the classroom, who have no real love for their students, who work only for the money. And there are terrible parents, overwhelmed by the demands of family and the pressures of work, incapable of giving their children the love and attention they need. We've all met them.

But most teachers mean well. Most parents try hard. So how can we reach common ground at these parent-teacher conferences?

Begin with having that hot bath ahead of time. Okay, scratch that.

There's no special dispensation to be critical when it comes to teachers.

As a parent, we must go in with an open mind. Assume that our child's teacher wants to do a good job, cares about her students. We should judge them favorably -- there's no special dispensation to be critical when it comes to teachers. Even more, we should be grateful to them for the time and effort they are putting into our children. (You don't really want home schooling, do you?)

I've learned the hard way that going in with that attitude usually makes all the difference. It is our responsibility to be our child's advocate, but the most effective way to accomplish that goal is to make common cause with their teacher -- not to struggle and antagonize.

Everyone likes and deserves praise and recognition. Start with: "My child really enjoys your class." If you can't bring yourself to say such a bald-faced lie, how about: "I really respect teachers. I sure couldn't do that job." Or: "It must be a real challenge everyday -- all those children to teach and discipline." Show your support and understanding. Try to imagine what it's like to struggle to teach all day and then receive only attack and criticism in return. (You probably don't have to stretch your imagination -- it's a lot like being a parent!) Be interested in them and their efforts and it will change the whole tone of the conference. (This is a useful tip for all relationships.)

And for the teacher -- I hope you're reading this also -- try adopting the same positive attitude. Parents love their children and want the best for them. They are trying their hardest to help them achieve their potential. And, just possibly, they have a clearer understanding of who their child is, their strengths and weaknesses. Learn from them. You're allies, not enemies. It's a partnership not a competition.

A friend of mine taught me a beautiful lesson in gratitude. At the end of each school year, she writes thank you notes to her children's teachers. It's such an important thing to do. I've learned from her and I try to do it too. But don't wait until the end of the year (although it is a useful strategy if you're going to have another child in their class next year!) Tell them now, and tell them often.

And teachers, tell the parents. They really do know their children. They really do have reasons for what they do. You could both learn and grow together. After all, isn't that what school is really about?

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