Ask an expert: Improving parent-teacher interviews

Simple steps for parents and teachers

By Dr. Linda Cameron

Benefits of improving the parent-teacher interview

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.

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