Because a call to parents from school often means trouble, the words “please come in for a parent-teacher interview” can strike fear in some parents That’s too bad. Although research shows that the relationship between schools and parents is becoming more adversarial, the truth is that schools and families share a common goal: ensuring that students succeed. And parent-teacher interviews remain the best way to help students get the care and attention they need.
Parents and teachers expect different things from interviews. Furthermore, parent-teacher interviews in elementary school tend to differ from those at the secondary level. Trust can wane over the years because parents meet less often with teachers. Problems that students encounter in secondary school are often more pronounced and complex than those in elementary school. Whereas elementary teachers typically have only about 25 students, secondary teachers may have as many as 150. To complicate matters, students have many secondary teachers.
Although getting a clear picture of student needs can be difficult, the best strategy for helping students to succeed is to ensure than parents and teachers communicate openly and in a positive manner. Parent-teacher conferences help build respectful, ongoing relationships that allow both parties to share information and develop strategies that help children to learn.
Because good relationships take time to develop, parents and teachers need to start early in the year by determining how often to meet and what topics to cover. In meeting with teachers, parents should feel free to ask questions, seek support, celebrate their children’s work and share their child’s unique strengths, interests and concerns—both academic and social. Although parents obviously know their children best, a wise teacher can often add perspective. Teachers are familiar with a spectrum of student needs and can offer suggestions based on professional knowledge. The key for parents is to work with their child’s teacher to build a plan that addresses the child’s unique needs.
The third partner in the relationship is, of course, the student. Before the interview, parents should talk to their child, review his or her homework assignments, and determine whether the child has any concerns. Ideally, students should be present at the interview. Many teachers—particularly at the elementary level—encourage students to use the interview to show parents their work, an activity that not only celebrates the child’s accomplishments but also helps to clarify expectations. Although this process may not be practical as children get older, parents of teenagers should still talk to their child before and after the interview to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Honest, respectful and positive meetings tend to be more productive than meetings that focus on problems or conflicts. For this reason, parents should come to an interview prepared to ask a few key questions to help set the tone. Asking the teacher to identify areas of study in which a child is doing well, for example, will create a positive atmosphere and may help to allay fears that a child may have about coming to the interview. Here are some other possible questions that parents might ask the teacher:
- What activities does my child enjoy most?
- What do you appreciate about my child?
- What skills does my child need to develop further? What are the main challenges?
- What can I do at home to help my child develop skills?
- How can I best support my child in each subject?
- How can I follow up on these suggestions?
- How does my child get along with other students?
- Is there anything about my child’s behavior or performance you would like to share?
- What is the best way to contact you? How can we best work together?
During an interview, parents should strive to converse honestly rather than defensively. They should also listen carefully, take notes if necessary and ask questions if they are unclear about what the teacher is saying. Above all, they should focus on potential by assuming the best about both their child and the teacher. Research shows that when both teachers and parents expect a lot from students, students strive to meet those expectations, especially if they feel that their parents and teachers are working together to support them.
Some Resources for Parents
Adams, K S, and S L Christenson. 2000. “Trust and the Family-School Relationship. Examination of Parent-Teacher Differences in Elementary and Secondary Grades.” Journal of School Psychology 38, no 5: 477–97.
Benner, A D, and R S Mistry. 2007. “Congruence of Mother and Teacher Educational Expectations and Low-Income Youth’s Academic Competence.” Journal of Educational Psychology 99, no 1: 140–53.