Maybe it’s squeezing into those small desks and chairs. Or the lingering fumes of drying glue and paint. Whatever the reason, the parent-teacher conference—a grade-school ritual that occurs at least once every school year—leaves many parents nervous and baffled. You go in determined to extract crucial information, but the teacher doesn’t automatically hand over the goods in a way that makes sense.
With both parties dancing around sensitivities—you don’t want to offend the teacher with suspicious questioning; the teacher is loath to criticize your kid—the unfortunate result can be botched communication and a waste of time. “A conference is your first real opportunity to form an alliance that will actually enhance your child’s education,” says Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Ed.D., professor of education at Harvard University and author of The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other. To get the most out of these precious moments, follow this lesson plan.
Let Her Talk First
The teacher knows things about your child that you don’t. “We spend hours every day with your child,” says Brooklyn teacher Mary Stanton. “We see how children act in a group, how they do on individual projects. They behave differently when parents aren’t around.” To find out about it, you have to let the teacher talk, so save your questions for the end (you’ll probably find that many are answered before you get to ask).
If only silence were that easy. Nervousness tends to make people chatter. “I talk too much,” says Maribeth Geracioti, a mom of two in Nashville. “The entire time, I’m thinking that I should shut up and listen, and still I spend half the time blabbing about…you know, I’m not even sure.” If your tendency is to rattle on when you’re a little on edge, try to redirect that energy by listening for specifics that you can ask questions about later.
Of course, sometimes parents’ best attempts to sit quietly and listen are disrupted by what they hear. “We were barely seated when the kindergarten teacher said, ‘I find your daughter very difficult to control,’ and suggested counseling,” one parent reported. “My husband and I were horrified, so naturally we felt compelled to explain that our daughter may be boisterous, but she’s also sweet and loving. We talked a blue streak, and before we knew it, the conference was over.”
Even in extreme cases like this, it’s better to gather information than to dole it out. If you suspect a teacher isn’t supportive of your child, you’ll get confirmation only by listening to what she says, not by trying to convince her otherwise…
Read more: Valerie Frankel, Parenting