Things to keep in mind after a bad parent-teacher conference
That dreaded meeting comes up at least twice a year (cue the scary music)—the parent-teacher conference. I have yet to meet a Solo Mom who enjoys this conversation with her child’s teacher. Maybe the conferences remind you of your personal experiences in elementary school, or hearing about your child’s progress seems bogus in an educational system that is fraught with inconsistency. Ideally, the conference is supposed to be a way for you to be involved in your child’s schooling; oftentimes, however, it can devolve into a series of miscommunications and be a downright unpleasant experience.
I spoke with Jessica Shiller, PhD, an assistant professor of education at Towson University in Maryland, to discuss this issue. She has authored The New Reality for Suburban Schools (published by Peter Lang, 2015), a book that explores how the suburban school system is struggling to prepare for the number of low-income students in attendance.
While Shiller spends her time educating new teachers, she is also an activist who is focused on urban education, culturally relevant instruction, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other issues necessary for comprehensive education reform that would benefit all children.
Our lengthy conversation spanned the pros and cons of charter schools, “teaching to the test,” and the problems inherent in the parent-teacher conference dynamic.
Below are some ways for Solo Moms to step back after a difficult meeting with a teacher, as well as some strategies to move forward.
Remember that you are both burdened by the system. The parent-teacher conference is a relic of the past, when women did not work outside the home. Sadly, the structure of these meetings, such as what time of day they are held or even their purpose, has not changed much. You might need to juggle your work schedule or feel pressured if you cannot make the appointed time.
Some teachers are able to work around your schedule, but many are subjected to their school’s parameters in terms of timing. Teachers also have guidelines and benchmarks that they have to meet, making the conversation feel one-sided if you have specific questions.
Also keep in mind that teachers have 25 to 30 of these conferences while you might have only one. Try to have compassion for the teacher and for yourself, and be mindful of these realities; this might help you take any off-putting comments that your child’s teacher says with a grain of salt.
Remember this is a relationship . . . and like others, it can be complex and challenging. Ultimately, teaching is about relationships—the relationship between the teacher and your child is paramount, but your relationship with the teacher is equally important. Even though you are not in school every day, this one still needs some tending to for the benefit of your child, and more so if it has soured.
Remember to assess what is important to you. The conference is to inform you on your child’s behavior and educational goals, but sometimes that irksome thing a teacher says blindsides you. For example, fighting for a grade of 90 versus an 85 is a waste of your energy, Solo Mom. Getting answers to your questions regarding your child’s learning level or his or her relationship with a child who might be bullying in the classroom is more beneficial to your child’s educational future. You might have to ignore the troubling thing or things the teacher says in order to get at the heart of understanding what is going on with your child at school.
Remember the environment your child is in. You might have liked the school’s strict learning environment but now see that your child is struggling in response. Are you clear on your child’s curriculum? Know the school’s rules before challenging a teacher’s response to an issue. (If the situation is untenable, there are strategies below.)
Remember the teacher has only a snapshot of your child’s home situation. The teacher might have no idea what is going on at home. There could be a life-changing experience that is affecting the child. Does the teacher have the full picture?
Remember your child is in school with the teacher every day. There could be a cultural gap with the teacher, or the teacher might be young and inexperienced, not yet know how to deftly navigate sensitive situations. He or she might be intimidated. Your getting into a battle with a teacher is one that your child cannot win the next day at school. Frankly, you do not have to like the teacher personally. This is where you might have to dig deep, be the bigger person, and be more strategic in your dealings with the teacher.
Strategies to move forward
Focus on your child’s education. Let go of how you feel about the teacher because at the end of the day, it does not matter. Make a call and/or send an e-mail expressing your interest in continuing the discussion at a later date. Avoid having a full conversation via e-mail, as your tone could be misunderstood. At a minimum, schedule a date and time for a followup discussion.
Build (or rebuild) the relationship with the teacher. Ask for a separate meeting outside the pressured parent-teacher conference environment to show your continued interest in your child’s progress. This meeting is not necessarily about your interaction with the teacher during the conference; rather, it’s to set the foundation for continuing the relationship throughout the rest of the school year.
Have clear goals for any and all conversations. Teachers are always teaching and have a tendency to drive the conversation. Try not to take it personally, but be clear about the reason for any meeting. Prepare some of your own questions, even if it is simply to get clarification on the teacher’s remarks.
Have an advocate, a former favorite teacher, an aunt, a grandparent, a friend, or another parent join you in the next meeting. Another person in the room can be helpful for listening for any biases or to just be in the room to calm the situation. Make sure that person is clear on his or her role and your goals for the meeting.
Keep the conversation going. Teachers usually respond to a parent who is pushing them. After a bad conference, it is odd to think that this strategy can work, but letting a teacher know that you are concerned for your child’s well-being is the best way to get him or her more positively engaged with you as the parent for the benefit of your child. This includes sharing any new developments at home that you feel might be affecting the child’s behavior or learning ability.
Handle situations with the teacher individually, first. Depending on the situation, getting the principal involved is not always the best idea and can escalate the issue. The teacher might feel threatened, which in turn might affect your child in the classroom. Oftentimes, it is better for you, Solo Mom, to be more tactical in your dealings with the teacher.
Set up the conversation with the best intentions possible. Ask open-ended questions to defuse confrontation. For example, “I’m concerned about our last conversation; can you clarify what you meant by—?”
Approach someone else about the issue, if necessary. If you try to arrange another meeting and there is a no or a other negative response from the teacher, then advise the teacher that you will approach someone else about the issue. If the teacher’s behavior is egregious, document any incidents (include everything: the date, time, etc.) and notify the principal, PTA, and/or school board. (Document the date, time, and methods of your outreach as well.) Note there are also organizations that can help you advocate.
Talk to other parents. You might not be the only person having an issue. Sometimes teachers lean on their authority because they might believe it is all that they have. The parent-teacher conference does not have to be about who has more power or authority in the room, but people fall into traps, so be ready to advocate with other parents, if needed.
There is no doubt that some teachers should do a better job of interacting respectfully and principals should be aware of issues when they arise. Shiller strongly believes in making all interactions with teachers from the lens of advocacy. This means making continued efforts to engage the teacher in order to find out if your child is being treated fairly or getting cited for discipline unnecessarily as well as taking the time to understand the curriculum and the teacher’s style. Getting a sense of how the teacher perceives your child is a way to assess what is occurring in the classroom so that you can plan your strategies accordingly. From that point of view, even the most difficult parent-teacher interactions can be beneficial. Advocating without alienating is not always easy, but compassion can override even the most challenging situations.
Tanisha Christie is an interdisciplinary performing artist and filmmaker. After years of working at the nexus of arts, media, social justice, and healing, she is currently finishing her master of social work (clinical specialization) at Hunter College in New York City. A child of a Solo Mom, she loves to ride her bike to the beach.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.