Care and Feeding

Parent-Teacher Conference Season

I’m nervous for this chat with my child’s teacher. What do I need to know?

Photo illustration of a parent-teacher conference
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas

This may sound like a silly question, but I’m really trying to do right by my kid. We have our very first parent-teacher conference next week. He’s only in kindergarten, so I know this isn’t a college admission interview, but I want to know what sorts of questions I should be asking. He’s a bright kid who loves to count and dance and is generally in good shape overall.

I moved a lot as a kid—my dad was in the military and I went to a new public school, usually in a new state, almost every other year—so my elementary school experience was pretty awful because I had no continuity in my education. I’m feeling nervous, and I want to do as much as I can to help him continue to like learning. I also want to be on top of how we can support him at home. Any basic guidelines you’d recommend?

—Conference Newbie

Dear Conference Newbie,

It’s not a silly question! OK, well, maybe it’s a little silly, but you seem to be aware of why. I mean, he’s in kindergarten. The stuff he’s learning is absolutely foundational to the rest of school, but it’s also kindergarten, and whatever he misses he will most likely catch up on. You have time. It’s OK to enjoy the fact that he loves to count and dance, and worry less about the academics.

Here’s what to expect: Walk into that meeting knowing that it’s incredibly unlikely that they will say anything particularly life-changing. They’re going to sit you down and talk about what they’re working on—in terms of academics and social skills—and how your son is doing. They’ll talk about whether he seems to have a grasp on the early reader stuff and the early arithmetic stuff and which classes or activities he likes most. They may give you a quick breakdown on where he is with respect to state standards he needs to meet by the end of the year.

My basic advice is this: You know your kid. Is he having a hard time learning his shapes and numbers? How about his letters, or sight words? Use this meeting to get his teacher’s perspective on how he’s doing with those skills. That said, you can most likely go into this meeting assuming that he has no major issues in this area, or you’d have heard about it already. One rule of thumb I was taught is that you should never catch a parent off-guard at a parent-teacher conference—there shouldn’t be anything happening at this meeting that is completely new. Most teachers I’ve met do follow that rule.

What questions could you ask? Exactly what you asked me: “I want to do as much as I can to help him continue to like learning, and I also want to be on top of how we can support him at home. What do you recommend?” His teacher should be able to talk to you in a meaningful, in-depth way about your son’s strengths and weaknesses, and how you can utilize the strengths to build more skill in those areas of weakness.

Enjoy the opportunity to get the teacher’s perspective on your child. I think once you get over your first-conference nerves, you’ll find it easy to ask questions that get to the heart of what you want to know about him as a student.

—Ms. Sarnell

My daughter “Ava” is an extremely bright fourth grader with some perfectionistic tendencies. We work hard at home to deemphasize grades and test scores, and we stress that mistakes and wrong answers are part of the learning process and that skills improve with work. She’s always excelled and been complimented by teachers, but she’s become very hard on herself when she makes mistakes. Her teacher last year did not help things: Ava described her teacher as demeaning and that she ridiculed students who made mistakes. The teacher emphasized perfect scores, ran a pretty toxic classroom, and was very defensive about any criticism. We ended up complaining to the principal last year, but we got no satisfactory response.

Fast-forward to now. Ava’s fourth grade teacher seems much more capable and thoughtful, and like she runs a more effective and pleasant classroom. But there’s still a strong classroom (maybe schoolwide?) emphasis on grades. All tests and assignments that come home are marked with a percentage grade, and students are complimented publicly when they score 100 percent. The work itself is not very challenging, so my daughter’s typical classwork comes home with As, which we then ignore. But recently she brought home a folder that included one assignment with an 87 percent and broke into tears because that’s “a bad grade.” I spent a lot of time that night emphasizing that this is not a bad grade. But on a broader level, I’m deeply concerned about what else we can do to foster a healthier attitude—because much bigger challenges are on the horizon in a couple of years.

Conferences are coming up. How do I discuss this effectively with the teacher? I’m partly worried that this is a schoolwide issue, and I’m also a bit worried that I may have already been labeled “difficult” by the principal. So I don’t want to be seen as just coming in with complaints all the time.

I’d also love for my daughter to be challenged, but this is a big (though good) public school, and I’m not sure they can do much. We had a conference last year with the teacher and the principal to discuss more personalized instruction, and a bunch of ideas were offered, but there was no follow-through.

—Help Me Help Her

Dear Help Me Help Her,

The best approach to getting your daughter help is to make it crystal clear to the teacher how your daughter is feeling without specifically suggesting that the teacher change her philosophy or classroom policies. Grades will continue to be an important part of your daughter’s life—especially as she moves beyond elementary school. If you are able to convey to the teacher how the pressure of grades impacts your daughter, perhaps the teacher can help your daughter find ways manage her anxiety without removing the source of it. If the teacher has an open heart, she will become more cognizant of the struggles that your daughter experiences, and find ways to help her accept mistakes and reduce pressure on herself.

Depending on the severity of this anxiety, a consult with the school psychologist might also be appropriate.

Moving forward, I would also advise that you dispense with concerns about being labeled “difficult” by the principal. You’re not trying to be friends with the principal. You’re trying to do the best for your daughter. Before you know it, your daughter will be moving onto a new school and this principal will be in firmly in your rearview mirror.

If you need to be a squeaky wheel in order to get your daughter everything that she needs, wear that label of “difficult parent” with pride. In my experience, those are the parents who get the most attention and effect the greatest change for their kids.

—Mr. Dicks

I am a white female educator working in an urban K-8 school, where over 90 percent of our student body is students of color. I recently received a young man in my middle school English/language arts class who was suspended 10 times last year. Several of those times were for persistent low-level issues (off-task and disruptive behavior), a few were for physical fights, and three were for sexual harassment. (This includes one instance that really should have been classified as sexual assault: He pinned down a girl and put his hand up her shirt.) This student has been engaging in sexual harassment and assault behaviors since he came to our school four years ago, so this is not new behavior.

I have concerns about my school’s suspension practices, but these are guided by our district’s student code of conduct as interpreted by our administration, and it has been made very clear to teachers that the conversation around suspension and general disciplinary practices is one in which our voices are unwelcome. However, as much as I am concerned about this young man, I am fairly confident that I can take steps to establish my classroom as a place where he can start with a clean slate and engage positively with his academics.

I am less certain about my ability to look past his multiyear history of sexual harassment and assault, especially given that several students who he victimized will be in the same class with him. (It may be relevant to mention that I have been sexually assaulted, so I do recognize that my personal history plays a role in how I feel about this situation.)

I don’t even know how to approach this situation. I want to create a welcoming classroom community for all of my students, but I don’t know how to do that given the things that this young man has done to his classmates in the past and my own baggage that I bring around this topic. Any advice?

—I Want to Get This Right

Dear IWtGTR,

I struggled with this one so hard.

I’m going to offer you my gut reaction and my personal advice, but I urge you to get some insight either from your school’s counselor, and/or a school psychologist, and/or his previous teachers—anyone who has more expertise in these kinds of issues, or his issues in particular. You say your administration is not open to discussion about suspension practices, but how to handle this student in your classroom is a different matter, and perhaps there is also someone in your administration who could be a resource for you.

But back to my advice: My first thought was that you should have a one-on-one conversation with the student. Tell him about the clean slate. Say something like: “I know you’ve engaged in some past behaviors that have upset your classmates and gotten you in trouble, but in my class we’re going to start fresh.” Ask him to commit to leaving his past in the past and to asking you for help when he has negative impulses. Tell him it’s OK to have the impulses; it’s just not OK to act on them.

Then I thought about the people, particularly the girls, who he has abused, and I was certain you needed to warn them. Tell them that if he does anything—anything at all—that they should let you know immediately.

But how is that a clean slate? If you’re warning the other kids about him, about behaviors he has not yet engaged in so far this year, how is that offering him a clean slate?

This is what I’ve landed on. I would have a conversation with the boy, and you can start the same way: “I know you’ve engaged in some behaviors in the past that have upset your classmates and gotten you in trouble.” But then you need to let him know your quandary—how desperately you want to offer him a fresh start but that it’s your job to protect your students. How you want all your students, including him, to feel safe, and cared for, and in a mental and emotional space where they can learn.

Ask him what he would do in your position, and then sit and listen. If he says he doesn’t know, wait. Wait for him to tell you. Break eye contact, and sit contemplatively. Bear any uncomfortable silence. This approach accomplishes two things: First, it teaches him empathy, something it seems he lacks; and second, it engages him in problem-solving an issue that he himself has created. It leans toward natural consequences. You broke it; you fix it.

Obviously, you can’t expect him to solve it on his own, but just having him see things from another perspective and brainstorm ideas will hopefully shift his thinking about it. And the bonus is he’ll see you as someone who wants to work with him, rather than punish him.

If you’ve given him time to think it over, and he’s truly got no ideas, or terrible ideas, suggest a conference. Who does he think could help support him? The guidance counselor? The principal? His parent? A coach? A teacher with whom he has a positive relationship? Also, tell him you have an obligation to speak with the other kids about their comfort and safety in the class. You will encourage students to come to you if they’re being abused or mistreated, and you won’t a abide a “snitches get stitches” philosophy. No one will be allowed to threaten whistleblowers.

Then speak to the kids, especially the girls, maybe individually, and let them know just that: Your classroom is a safe space. You’re there for them. And they can tell you anything.

It’s going to be tough. Best of luck.

—Ms. Scott

My twin daughters are in their first year of middle school. They really enjoy all of their teachers except their language arts teacher, who is making them uncomfortable. During class she will say things to her students like, “I go home every night and cry because no one listens to me.” And, “No, you cannot work on your projects at home because you will have your parents do it.” She also says broader things like, “You shouldn’t wear expensive shoes because that means you are just showing off,” and, “You are all being failed by the American school system because none of you are bilingual. If you were, then your IQ would be higher.” This doesn’t seem like normal behavior for a middle school teacher. Is it? How do I address this with my daughters?

—Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned Mom,

One thing to consider: There are two sides to every story; the version you hear from the teacher might be very different from what your daughters have told you. I can imagine a scenario where the first comment was meant as a joke, for example. The second comment … well, it might be true. Of course, it’s equally possible this teacher has no filter and says things without considering the impact her words can have on students.

The next time your daughters bring up one of her off-the-wall comments, ask your daughters for their interpretation. What do they think the teacher meant? Do they agree with her? It’s fine for them to think critically about the messages they receive at school and normal at their age to disagree with teachers sometimes. You can have open, honest conversations with them. I think you should focus more on listening to their perspectives than adding your own, because it could be that while they don’t love this particular teacher, they just think she’s a little kooky. This could be an important life lesson: Sometimes we have to work with weird people. It won’t be the last time.

You certainly can discuss your concerns with the teacher, and let her know that she is making at least some of her students uncomfortable. If you get the sense that she’s interfering with your daughters’ learning, this will be necessary. However, I have a feeling she’s going to get herself into trouble whether or not you intervene. I doubt you’re the only parent hearing such stories at home. Regardless of whatever she meant to say about bilingualism, any comment that implies students are unintelligent is bound to raise the hackles of parents, some of whom will bend the ear of the principal.

Best of luck—I’d love for you to write back and let me know how things go.

—Ms. Holbrook

More Care and Feeding

Recently, my 11-year-old daughter came home from school and told me that a boy in her class threatened to hold a gun up to another little girl’s head because he was mad at her. The teacher got quite upset about this happening and involved the principal, but the child who made the threat was in school the following day. I want to know my child is safe. How can I know my school takes gun threats seriously?