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What I did wrong at parent-teacher conferences (and tips)

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What’s scarier? Ghoulish Halloween masks or getting ready for a conference with your child’s teacher? Well, I suppose it depends on your child and how he or she is behaving in class. And it depends upon your relationship with your child’s teacher, and whether you see eye-to-eye.

Not to sound like a braggart, but my husband and I have gotten almost exclusively glowing reviews about our fourth grade daughter’s performance in school, and what a joy she is to have in class. (Well, there was the year that she was a bit too glued to her BFF and their drawings and papers somehow were almost always identical. Fortunately, plagiarism isn’t a crime in first grade).

We’ve got an entirely new situation this year.

Last week, my daughter was threatenedwith her first conduct report for showing “disrespect.” She was writing her assignments in giant letters in her weekly planner and kept doing so even when the teacher asked her to stop. Sounds to me like she was pushing his buttons; then again, my daughter has always accented all of her work with artistically drawn letters and pictures. Then, she wrote her weekly list of challenge words on a sticky note instead of in her spelling notebook despite being told to do the latter. (My rebellious side says, Does it really matter as long as she does the work? But my more rationale side does understand the need for a teacher to show who’s in charge).

The teacher is worried she’ll lose her assignments. But he’s also worried about her willfulness and defiance. I say let the chips fall where they may. If she fails to do her homework or understand what’s expected of her, then let her face a lower-level sanction. So far, she’s doing all the work. Then, there are my conflicted feelings about the traits of “defiance” and “willfulness.” In some instances, those traits can serve a person well. In other cases, they’re bad news.

With time, I can now say that my husband and I overreacted to the e-mail outlining our daughter’s misdeeds. It did not help that it came on a Friday and despite our immediate e-mail responses to the teacher, we did not hear anything from the school until the following week. The information festered all weekend to the point we were talking home school. (If you knew me, you’d say, ‘What????’) We initially dragged in the principal, then thought better of it and simply met face-to-face with the teacher. I recommend this measured approach if you have an issue with your child’s teacher. In our case, the slate feels clear again, and I know we all want the same end result for our daughter – for her to be a happy, well-adjusted learner.

Meanwhile, we have our conference with the teacher next week. I anticipate it will go well and we’ll be able to focus on the stuff I really want to hear about: what she’s learning this year, and what subjects make her tick.

But this situation brought to light a situation many parents will face: What do you do if your own values conflict with those of the teacher? What if your expectations at home are different than the ones in the classroom? What if you disagree with your teacher’s approach? Our situation has thankfully resolved itself (for now), but I got a taste of how awful it would be to be in a major conflict with a teacher. As a parent, you can feel so alone and that you’ve done something wrong. It is really hard to separate your own knee jerk emotional reactions from the facts on the table. It’s so important to feel good about the classroom you’re sending your child into every day.

 Here are some tips for starters:

* It’s helpful to use “I” statements.
* Focus on the things the teacher is doing well, too, and ask questions about the other things.
* Share suggestions of techniques that seem to work well with your child at home.
* Bringing in the principal is a last resort (Oops).

Have you had conflicts with your child’s teacher? If so, what strategies worked? How did you approach conferences? What do you do if things get really bad – stick out the year, or do something more drastic like change schools or home-school? We’d all love to hear from you.

Julie Poppen 

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