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Montreal Families

How to navigate parent-teacher meetings

Soon after her daughter Kathrina started kindergarten, Isabelle Richard received a message about an upcoming parent-teacher meeting. She was excited at the prospect of meeting the teacher because she found it hard to assess how her daughter was doing at school — not just academically but socially. Despite repeatedly asking questions about school, Kathrina was reticent to share stories about what would go on in the classroom.

Richard’s one concern about the meeting was the length of time allocated: only 15 minutes. “I wanted to make the most of that time but I didn’t know what kind of questions would be helpful,” she says.

For many parents, the once or twice-yearly meeting with their children’s teacher or teachers may provoke anxiety. The sessions are usually short, so parents need to be well prepared and focused. And it isn’t just the parents who will be engaging in conversation; the teachers may also have a few questions of their own.

Annie Brown, an English teacher at Trafalgar School for Girls in Montreal, says she’ll often ask how well a child works at home. “Sometimes a student may say that an assignment took five hours but when you talk to the parents, you find out that it was because the student kept getting sidetracked by text messages or Facebook,” she says. This type of question can lead to a useful discussion on how to improve a student’s study skills. But if a child truly is having trouble completing assignments on time, a teacher should be made aware so he or she can figure out the best ways to help the student.

Brown will also share what she thinks are a student’s strengths and weaknesses, while not placing too much emphasis on how a student is doing in comparison to others. “Parents are often worried about rankings but I really think it’s important to talk about the child’s specific abilities,” she says. By focusing on the individual student, she adds, parents and teachers can come up with ways to help a child develop to his or her full potential.

For example, if a student is having trouble reading and understanding certain novels, a teacher might be able to provide a list of reading suggestions to help them develop confidence and interest in reading.

Brown says she loves it when parents ask what they can do at home to support the work being done in the classroom. “This question lets teachers know that the parents want to be part of the team,” she says. It shows that parents respect the work a teacher is trying to do in his or her classroom while acknowledging that parents want to be involved in their children’s education.

If a parent doesn’t understand something on the child’s report card, a parent-teacher meeting is the time to ask. Teachers should be able to provide more information about what a child is expected to learn that year and what criteria they use for evaluating students.

As well, parents should ask about their child’s social development. Does she participate in group activities? Does she talk with the other kids? Part of schooling is helping children develop social skills. At her meeting, Richard discovered that her daughter was doing fine academically but needed to work a bit more on reigning in her desire to lead and organize the entire class. So now the family is working on listening skills and taking turns.

Although parent-teacher meetings tend to be brief, they offer an excellent opportunity to learn more about your child. A little preparation can go a long way towards helping you make the most of those precious minutes.

Talking with the teacher

Meeting your children’s teacher (or teachers) is an excellent opportunity to learn about how your child is managing at school and if there are any specific worries or issues that need to be addressed. To make the most of your meeting, keep in mind the following tips:

Talk with your child about his or her experience in the classroom — what does she like, what is difficult, does she have any particular worries. Then you can talk about these matters at the meeting.

Write down your questions and concerns so you don’t forget anything, which is easy to do once you start engaging in conversation. As well, bring a pen and paper to take notes and jot down any suggestions.

Be on time and respect the schedule (other parents are waiting too). If you need more time, make a separate appointment with the teacher or ask if you can send an email outlining your concerns.

Listen carefully to what the teacher has to say, even if you disagree at times. The teacher is likely to mention both strengths and weaknesses. Instead of getting defensive, focus on concrete actions that you can take at home to help your child improve in any weak areas.

Leave with an action plan. This could be as simple as knowing the best way to reach a teacher (by telephone or email) if you have a question or concern during the year or as detailed as a plan to hire a tutor for a specific subject.

Remember to thank the teacher for her time and observations. Everyone likes to feel appreciated.

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