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Ask an expert: Improving parent-teacher interviews

Author: Canadian Living

Family

Ask an expert: Improving parent-teacher interviews

Q: How can the parent teacher interview be more effective?

A:Parent-teacher interviews are tradition. One writer suggested that they are "a sacred cow of school." Unfortunately, the tradition is typically that the parents of the privileged children come -- those parents who already know their children best. Teachers seldom get to meet the caregivers of the children who we puzzle over, the ones that we would love to help more and the ones for whom some insight into their lives might be helpful in determining how to meet their needs.

Although there are some effective alternatives happening in many places, the traditional interview routine has the teacher sitting at a desk and reporting to the parent/caregiver about what the child has done or not done, effectively or unsatisfactorily. The parents listen. A few questions and responses might be exchanged before the interview ends and the next parent enters and the routine repeats. There seems to be little expectation -- and hence hope -- that the parent-teacher interview will make a difference for the child, for the parent and for the teacher.

I am a mom. I am a teacher. I sit on both sides of the desk. I have felt terribly shy and awkward going to parent-teacher interviews in both roles. It was easier as a parent in the years when I was able to be involved actively as a parent volunteer because I had a relationship with the teacher. The interview was less necessary at that time because I already knew what was going on. It was toughest when I was not happy with the second-hand reports from my child about what was going on in school. It was even tougher when I knew that my child was unhappy in school. I felt silenced partly because I was a teacher myself and knew what could happen if I shared my concerns. My three children were good students, maybe a little mischievous at times, and often not very motivated to do the mundane -- but still it was hard to go to the interview.

What would it be like if you had a child with learning problems, behaviour problems, social/emotional problems and who was generally not coping and learning? What if your child was truly unhappy in school and you dreaded sharing the reason because of the possible repercussions? What would it be like if things were deteriorating in your family and that dysfunction was matched by an unhappy classroom experience? What if you were from another country and spoke a different language? What if you were unable to attend formal meetings because of health or employment issues? And then, from the teacher's perspective, what if the problem was parenting or the parent? How does one talk about that without professional risk or even worse, without putting the child in further risk?

My very first interview as a parent was horrifying. I had a newborn and a three-year-old at home and so had not been in to the school that year to volunteer or visit. My exuberant, talkative firstborn came home clutching a note about the parent interview schedule for the evening and excitedly blurted out that he had told his teacher that I was coming. He had also advised her that I could help her learn how to put her makeup on properly so that she did not look like a clown. My already nervous stomach went into spasm! I wondered what else had he promised or what stories had he told about our home?

The visit proved to be quite wonderful as the teacher made me comfortable in her professional space so that I could think, talk, ask questions, listen and respond. The stress for parents in this context is quite incredible even when they are not 'set up'.

Teachers, parents, and in many cases the children, are apprehensive about the "parent-teacher" conference. The more questions we have, the more important the conference and the more difficult it seems to go and to be productive. Effective teachers and parents want to solve problems and to celebrate the good things.

What teachers can do to make parent interviews positive and productive

• Establish the belief that the meeting will be real, meaningful and relevant for teacher, parent and child. The meeting must result in productive strategies and hope. It must be honest and fair.

• The conference should be a celebration of who the child is, what he or she knows and can do, and what the possibilities could be if certain strategies are put in place. The root of evaluation is to "value", the process should be positive. That does not mean that you ignore the tough stuff…the things that need work and attention. What it does mean is that you talk about the needs and difficulties in a way that the essence of the child is not destroyed and hope is not eroded for all parties.

• It is helpful if the facts have been shared before the interview: a report card before a reporting meeting, a note about what the meeting will be about when it is an invitational conference about a particular concern. Parents and teachers need enough information to prepare for the conference no matter who requests it. If parents or teachers are not informed about the nature of the requested meeting, there is the possibility of feeling ambushed by blame fixing and the result is that someone is set in a defensive position. Frustration, anger, fear, discouragement often result and so hope is blanched, the child suffers and the result is far from hopeful for change.

• The conference should be practical. The results should be manageable actions and or strategies.

• It should build partnership and relationship, not set up opposing forces.

• The conference must allow all voices to be "at the table": the teacher's, the parents' or caregiver's and the child's. If the child is not there in person (our first choice) then the child should be aware of what is being said about them and have been involved in preparing the portfolio of work discussed. A report should be given to the child about what was discussed, planned and celebrated.

Some other things
Involve parents whenever possible in the school. Some excellent suggestions for schoolwide activities that build community can be found in At Home in Our Schools (Developmental Studies Center, 1994) If parents are comfortable in the school, that makes a huge difference.

• Involve caregivers in classroom activities. Allow them to just visit, invite them to volunteer in various ways, invite them to be a part of their child's education in any way they can.

• Have a classroom newspaper that reports what is happening regularly in your classroom. Allow the children to act as reporters who describe and comment on learning experiences and class news. Invite parents to contribute to the newspaper.

• Involve the student in preparing a portfolio of work to share with the parent or care giver. This portfolio could contain a sampling of dated work that would demonstrate the development and learning of the student from the beginning of the year. An additional reflection could be prepared where the child and the teacher together described the learning accomplished in the chosen pieces. This metacognitive exercise reinforces the learning and celebrates the learner's accomplishments. For example you might include: excerpts from the writing folder, the reading log book, some pieces of special writing, a math test, a social studies project, an art piece, a music composition, a spelling test...

What parents can do to become more involved
Think of the parent-teacher interview as a time when you can share insights into your child with her/his teacher. Remember that, especially in the early school years and especially at the beginning of the school year, no one knows your child as well as you do.

Share the reactions or comments or reflections of your child with the teacher. Do this in a positive way if you can. Explain how much he enjoys the song portion of each day and how he sings them all for you. Or relate how she shares her growing knowledge of the planets with your family at supper. Teachers need to hear about the good things, about the things that they hope are working and that they invest so much time and energy into creating and making come alive.

At the same time, raise concerns that you might have about your child's progress or about the program. You are working with your child's teacher and, in this vein, you need to keep the channels of communication open. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification or to give a suggestion. At the same time, remember that very few jobs are as truly open to criticism as teaching and voice your concerns in a way that stresses the positive aspects, as well as ideas for improvement.

If at all possible, do not make the parent-teacher interview your first visit to your child's classroom. Many schools have meet-the-teacher barbecues or drop-ins in the first month of school. Attend these functions.
Shake the hand of your child's teacher. Let her/him put a name to your face. As a partner in your child's education, get an understanding of how the classroom works, where he sits, what her schedule is.

Furthermore, most teachers welcome parents to their classrooms, especially when they are visiting with their child and want to "see" where it all happens. Drop in on a Thursday or any day when you can get away from work early. If you cannot do this, send your child's teacher an occasional note--a ready-made opportunity to share positive reflections as well as concerns. Your child's teacher will want to know what he really liked, or what she found difficult. When you see yourself as a true partner in your child's education, then the idea of your input into his/her education becomes so vital and necessary.

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Ask an expert: Improving parent-teacher interviews

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