January 27, 2014 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Spring semester parent-teacher conferences are coming up soon, but parents wanting to maximize their return on these quick meetings with their kids’ teachers might want to start a few habits now.

Don’t expect to solve major problems in five minutes

Anna Rempel, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at Conestoga Public Schools, says she tries to keep individual meetings between five and seven minutes long. Josephine Langbehn, a seventh-grade art educator at Omaha Public School’s Monroe Middle School, says her meetings may average ten minutes.

Serious problems, like acting out in the classroom or demonstrating a need for special education testing, aren’t tackled here. “If a student is struggling, I’ve already e-mailed a parent about it,” Rempel says, adding that school counselors and the principal would handle those concerns.

Parent-teacher conferences, on the other hand, are more along the lines of checkups. Expect to be handed a grade report and discuss:

  • Test average
  • Homework average
  • Overall grade
  • Any missing homework
  • Suggestions for improvement

Take notes

Parents can receive a lot of information in very condensed form during conferences. Rempel says she offers pointers like homework organization or encouraging a student to check against a calculator. Langbehn will discuss more abstract skills, such as a student’s ability to navigate art criticism or form their own ideas about what makes good art.

Whatever the subject, jot down the teacher’s suggestions and refer to them the next time you help your child with homework.

A teacher may even offer insight directly from your child. A few days before conferences, Rempel has her students write three sentences on their own grade reports. “I have sentence starters for them to choose from: I’m doing awesome at blank, I’m not really understanding blank, I participate by blank.” That way parents can hear in a student’s own words what’s going on in class.

Ask how to take grades to the next level

If maintaining a specific grade point is important to you and your child, ask for specifics: “If my child has a B and I want them to have an A, what else could they do?” Paying attention to grades posted online is another way to monitor progress, Rempel says, and note any warning signs in particular subjects.

For improving on concepts like creatively solving for solutions, Langbehn suggests asking the teacher for more self-guided goals and projects to pursue outside the classroom. “That is a life skill now. You have to be able to think creatively.”

Be proactive with your communication

If you or the teacher mentioned concerns during your conference, Rempel strongly encourages contacting the teacher again in a few weeks. Langbehn adds that it’s important to find the best way to reach a particular teacher. “If we need to follow up, how will that happen?” she says. “I personally 
prefer e-mail.”

While Rempel encourages parents to attend at least the first conference of the year (you can usually expect one in fall and another in spring), she suggests sending an e-mail to a teacher if you’re not going to drop by.

“The important thing is that a parent and a teacher work together as a team,” Langbehn says. “It’s not just me telling a parent that your kid needs to do this.”

If all goes well, Rempel says parents can expect to hear, “They’re doing great. I appreciate your involvement in your child’s education, and if there are problems in the future, I will definitely contact you.”