Parents can be frustrated by their children’s teachers. By their harsh tone of voice when young children have trouble being quiet or sitting still. By taking away recess for infractions like losing their Chumash worksheets or getting up to sharpen a pencil without asking permission first. By their fixation on rewards and punishments, behavior charts, and test scores.
On the other hand, parents who seem indifferent, blasé, or unresponsive when their child is being mean to other children in class, are deeply troubled that the office listed four latenesses on the report card when their own count is three and a half. Some parents of children who read far below grade-level can’t find 20 minutes in their evening to make sure their child reads at home.
Parents might be responsible for the well-being of two or three children. In a classroom, a teacher is responsible for 25. All of these children have various moods, mishaps and needs—a question, a Band-Aid, a tissue, a hug—that pop up all day with the unpredictable urgency of exploding popcorn kernels.
Teachers do the best they can to treat every child with attention, patience, and compassion. Sometimes they may miss something—a boy’s sudden certainty that he’s about to throw up, or the mean girl at recess who hurt your daughter’s feelings. Most are doing the best they can.
Much has been written about the stresses of parent-teacher conferences on parents as well as on teachers. They can be some of the most rewarding—or the most stress-inducing—experiences of the school year. If students are doing well in their studies and flourishing socially, it’s a no-brainer to discuss these achievements with parents. However, there are times when a teacher may want to have a more difficult conversation with parents. A teacher may need to discuss strategies for students who are struggling, having social problems or dealing with parents’ questions about school policies and procedures.
Lisa Westman, author of “Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom” has written an article with some parent-teacher conference guidance for teachers. One of the areas she discusses is pull-out services for special needs as well as for gifted students. Sometimes, these programmatic changes can be extremely stressful for students as well as parents. In favor of meeting the needs of all students in the regular class setting, some schools deal with this through differentiated instruction.
Teachers frequently have to deal with the demands, concerns, and criticisms of parents whose children had previously been pulled out by a specialist and are now getting this enrichment in the regular classroom. When a parent raises these issues to a teacher, it can make the teacher uneasy, or even put him/her on the defensive. Once on the defensive, teachers try to redirect the exchange to a more positive tone. Unfortunately, in these cases, the parent-teacher conference often does not end well, with both teacher and parents being unable to resolve the issue and come up with a good plan for the child’s education.
To avoid these negative and stress inducing situations, Westman recommends the following steps for ensuring that conferences with confrontational and/or concerned parents are productive:
Step 1: Repeat back what the parents say to ensure a mutual understanding.
“It sounds like you are concerned that your son is bored/not challenged in Gemara now that he is no longer being pulled out for enrichment services.”
Step 2: Concede and validate the parents’ emotion.
Parents are entitled to feel how they do. When you validate the emotion, parents no longer have to be on the defensive.
“I completely understand and agree with your frustration. Your son should absolutely be engaged and appropriately challenged. Please know, I want the same thing as you.”
Step 3: Ask questions instead of making statements to get a clearer picture of the parent’s perception.
Teacher: “What is making you think your son is bored in Gemara?”
Parent: “He says he is.”
Teacher: “Does he say why or when he is bored?”
Parent: “No. He just says he is always bored.”
Step 4: Reply with data.
“I understand. Now, what I want to do is determine if your son is bored because he is not being challenged, or if your son is bored because he doesn’t find the content relevant. Either way, it is my job to make sure we find a remedy. I want to ensure I choose the most appropriate approach. Take a look at this information with me.” Here, a teacher can share recent formative-assessment information related to the gemara concepts. “What I see here is that your son is being challenged. He’s making appropriate growth toward mastering this content and is on track to master it soon. That leads me to believe your son may be bored because he doesn’t see why it’s important to learn this.”
Step 5: Suggest an approach, and ask the parents if this proposal sounds sensible to them.
“I think it would be helpful if I chatted with your son to see if we can get more information as to the cause of his boredom. Once I know that, he and I will create a plan of action and share that with you. How does this sound?”
Step 6: Follow up with the student and parents.
After the conference, talk with the student about the issue at hand and create a plan. Then, bring the parents back into the loop. Ideally, the student should also be a part of this conversation. Consider using technology like FaceTime, Skype or a group chat to involve all parties.
Parents want what is best for their children, yet they don’t always know what is best when it comes to their education. Students can excel in classroom environments which may be terra incognita to parents. But if parents are worried about their child’s needs being overlooked, it can make conferences feel like an attack on teachers as both professionals and human beings.
This is the most unfortunate of circumstances because when it comes down to it, parents, teachers, and students all want the same thing: for students to learn. By following these six steps during parent-teacher conferences, teachers ensure that they form a partnership with parents rather than an adversarial relationship with negative emotions and power struggles.
Teachers tend to fixate on the support they need from parents, while forgetting to ask what support parents might need from them. Teachers and parents need each other. Let’s remember how hard both jobs can be, and try to make them a little easier for each other when we can.
By Wallace Greene
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is a veteran of many parent teacher conferences as a parent, a teacher, and as a principal.