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Geoff Johnson: Parent-teacher interviews often unsatisfying

It’s that time again and nobody is really comfortable. Tax time? No, it’s parent-teacher conference time, an experience that one parent likened to speed dating.
It’s that time again and nobody is really comfortable. Tax time? No, it’s parent-teacher conference time, an experience that one parent likened to speed dating.

“I’m sure it’s strange for the teachers as well,” wrote Brad Sherwin in a Lower Mainland newspaper. “It’s a parade of people who look slightly familiar, especially after being associated with the student’s name.

“The thing that is most striking is how much the teachers care about our children’s education. They are passionate about what they teach, and truly want to see our kids succeed.”

Difficult for everybody then, those parent-teacher “interviews,” and not always satisfying — kind of like appetizers with no dinner to follow.

Despite having spent my career in public education and having sat on both sides of the table as a teacher and a parent, I sometimes wondered why we did it and whether there were not some better alternative.

The research is clear: When parents are involved in their child’s education, student achievement is higher. And maybe that’s one reason we hold parent-teacher conferences in the absence of a better system.

Unfortunately, the reality is that teachers typically don’t get to see the parents whose children would benefit the most from that conversation. Parents whose children are engaged and successful in school often represent the majority of parent-teacher conference attendees.

I always tried to arrive as a well-prepared parent with a list of questions.

My “opener” was designed to initiate the conversation in a challenging but non-confrontational way: “Tell me something about my son that I might have missed out on.”

My list always included at least a few of the following:

“What area is he best at?”

“Are there any areas he finds difficult? If so, what are these specific areas?”

“Do you have any suggestions as to what I might do at home to help?”

This last one was always a biggie, indicating to the teacher that I knew I had a partnership responsibility. After all, my child was with me 18 hours a day and at school only six hours. So who, after all, had the main part of the responsibility for my child’s success?

Other things worth knowing for me, and far beyond the minimal information on a report card, were:

Does he participate in class?

How does he relate to others in the class?

How is he with paying attention, following instructions and organizing work or notes?

Is there anything you can tell me about his performance or behaviour that you are concerned about?

Right about then, I would become aware of 20 or 30 other parents waiting in line behind me, with the teacher glancing nervously over my shoulder at Mrs. You-Know-Who, the parent never happy about anything teachers did and who was waiting for the opportunity to unload about last year’s teachers’ union dispute with the government.

Parent-teacher conferences, as the saying goes, are what they are. But there are alternatives being attempted.

A paper presented at the Harvard Family Research Project outlined a path to true parent engagement, rather than participation.

In this system, each parent receives a folder with his or her child’s data and learns how to interpret assessment data.

Additionally, teachers model reading and math skills, which parents are able to practise before applying them at home. According to this research project, although teachers were at first hesitant to coach parents, they now welcome their new teaching partners.

Positive relationships with parents are a most important aspect of a healthy school culture. Working directly with students is what teachers do best, but parent engagement beyond that “speed-dating interview” is what can really make the difference.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.