Teaching moments: How to make Parent-Teacher conferences better

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 24 2012 8:00 p.m. MDT

Teachers Elaine Endo and Julien Pessin meet with Bailey Copper and her mother Patty during a parent-teacher conference.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As a veteran teacher and a mom, Elaine Endo has mastered the tricky calculations on both sides of the parent-teacher conference equation. Her dual experience helps her turn testy parent-teacher conferences, which are underway throughout the state over the next few weeks, into positive, productive experiences.

Endo is a second grade French immersion teacher at Foxboro Elementary School in North Salt Lake. She has taught school for 36 years.

During past conferences, it has sometimes been Endo's duty to tell parents that their child is under-performing or acting up at school. As the mother of two adult daughters, she knows well the parental urge to protect and defend one's child, so she proceeds with care.

"Some parents have already made up their mind on what they are going to hear before they come in," Endo said. "They come in ready to assign blame. It's an emotional perspective they are coming from, and I sure can understand that as a parent, so I try to defuse that emotionalism."

Endo can look back on hundreds, maybe thousands, of parent-teacher conferences, and most were warm, positive experiences. The few negative ones stay in her mind, though.

Parents have their own reasons for trepidation where parent-teacher conferences are concerned. Herndon, Va. resident Julie Frederickson recalls countless queues for three-minute meetings, where introductions were barely over when a buzzer rang. Next!

She once suffered through a meeting with a teacher so unyielding that she wouldn't allow Frederickson's autistic son, Michael, to work math assignments on graph paper so he could keep unruly number columns in line.

Frederickson, mother of four sons, can look back on positive conferences that strengthened teamwork with teachers, too.

There's one in particular that stands out in her mind. It's the one at which a teacher looked her in the eye, and told her he just loved teaching her son Carter "because he thinks out of the box and comes up with creative answers, — because he asks follow-up questions, — and because he thinks about things in a creative way."

"He won me over," Frederickson said. "He brought up things I didn't really recognize in my kid. I knew that no matter else he had to say, we could deal with it."

The teacher's insightful assessment of her shy, sensitive son showed Frederickson he understood and cared about her boy. A partnership was born — one that allowed two of Carter Frederickson's most important mentors to celebrate his successes, examine his academic shortcomings, and work for improvement together.

Differing perceptions

When a child is sailing through school with few problems, positive parent-teacher conferences happen easily. But, when things aren't going well at school, they can devolve into finger-pointing sessions that leave everyone feeling frazzled, child included.

Part of the problem might be that parents and teachers have differing perceptions about their relationship. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows discrepancies in what parents and teachers say about the conferences, and about the relationship between schools and parents in general.

Eighty-one percent of parents surveyed said they attend parent-teacher conferences, but teachers said only 57 percent of parents attend. The chasm between parents' and teachers' perceptions was even greater when they were asked about school open houses (back-to-school nights): most parents says they attend (84 percent); schools say the majority don't (49 percent attend).

The recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics showed gaps in perceptions about parent involvement in supporting children's school attendance, monitoring homework and encouraging reading. Whether parents or teachers answered the survey more accurately is hard to determine.

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