How to Handle Teacher Conferences
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Interview James. No evaluation is valid without the input of the person involved, so get your high schooler's point of view about his poor grades. First, discuss how he views himself as a student. Take your hands off your hips and ask questions like you are interviewing a famous rock star, and you might spark his interest long enough to get an answer beyond a grunt. His opinions about himself might surprise you. His opinions of his own abilities and efforts have tremendous impact on his production and how you and his teachers gear your plans to increase his self-confidence. The more James is involved in the conference process, the greater his stake in the outcome.
- What does he think about his study habits? Watch for his reality-free perceptions here. If he thinks he's a scholar, but you think he's a dabbler, ask for proof of his opinion. Or ponder aloud about when he got started on his persuasive writing assignment because you know you heard him on the phone from the time you started dishes until his little brother went to bed at 10:00 p.m. Stock up on seemingly innocent observations, complete with time frames and associated facts whenever James needs a nonjudgmental reality check.
- What are his hobbies and sports interests? What percentage of his time is devoted to pursuing them as opposed to studying. If it's over thirty percent of each day and his grades are sliding, it's time for him to plan on cutting back. Help him devise specific ways and means and advise his teacher of this sign of his good academic intentions.
- How does he cope with stress and problems? Is he a procrastinating worrier or just a laid-back partying kind of guy? Get specific about what he can do to get back on track.
- What is happening in the classroom that is jamming up his grade? Talk about the classroom dynamic, his participation, teacher reactions and expectations, and his tardiness or absences, which all can negatively impact grades. What does the teacher say or do that he can't understand or cope with? What is the best thing about this class?
- What about assignments? Are there too many? Too complicated? Are too many based on a book he never understood in the first place? Does he need more time to complete them than the other kids because his reading skills aren't as strong?
Rehearse the worst-case scenario. Plan for the worst possible feedback from his teacher at the conference you've just scheduled. Will she suggest psychological counseling, drug rehabilitation, or summer school? Get the gasping out of your system ahead of time by rehearsing different hairy scenarios and brainstorming alternative solutions you can offer for improving his situation. Though what the teacher says might make that desk appear like a yawning pit between the two of you, that person, more likely than not, is on your side when it comes to your kid. Keeping that foremost in your mind will fortify you as hysterical fantasies thrash around inside your head.
Construct an anecdote. More powerful than your most fervent declarations and pledges is a short narrative to share with the teacher about James, particularly if the teacher is building up a negative opinion of his efforts. What episode in his recent past best illustrates his gifts, talents, personality strengths, or skills? Did he carry a large package down the steps for the crankiest old lady who lives in your apartment building and deliver it with a smile to her waiting car? Let his actions paint a promising picture for his teacher. A good anecdote can be a powerful antidote.
Make arrangements to meet. If there is not a regularly scheduled conference when you need one, set one by calling or e-mailing the teacher or teachers in the subjects where James needs the most help. Conferences typically last 20-30 minutes and are held most often before or after school. Be accommodating. Remember you are the one asking for help. Rearrange your schedule accordingly and mark it in your appointment book. Ask if anyone else should be included. The guidance counselor or assistant principal? If you don't already have some, request to see two examples of James's English class work-his best and his worst. Class work tells a better tale than homework. These two papers show range of ability. The best one gives you both an opportunity for honest praise; the worst provides the focus point.
Take a pal along. During that call also mention that you will not be alone. Take your spouse or James's favorite aunt along to ask all the questions that go straight out of your head when the teacher says things you knew you would dread hearing. Don't hesitate to ask tutors, mentors, or educational counselors to attend teacher conferences with you. Kids in academic trouble need all the advocates you can find. Adding the voice of another committed family member, particularly one that he respects like a favorite aunt, can be helpful especially if you and your spouse's relationship with James is currently strained. In the car on the way to the conference, agree on key areas and important points and make some last-minute notes.
Do a background check. Who are the people teaching James? Contrary to James's opinion, his English teacher does not weigh five hundred pounds and sound like a turkey with a sinus condition. Ask your mole, your local PTA, neighbors, friends, or James's former teachers to brief you on the philosophies, teaching techniques, or sticking points about the teachers at your conference for James. Background information gives deeper meaning to their recommendations and allows you to formulate your requests based on their known strengths and habits.
Set your agenda. Think about your plans and objectives for the conference and jot them down. Don't discuss wishes, hopes, and dreams of Harvard; focus instead on what is appropriate for James today. Does he need a math tutor? Does he need Internet resources or book titles for independent reading? Include a list of your special requests, too. How can the teacher support James's need to balance his course work with his sports activities? Would you like him or her to focus on helping James overcome his anxiety about speaking in front of the class? Limiting yourself to three items helps align your conversation to the short conference time allotted.
Make a folder. In addition to your James interview and mole notes and your own three-point agenda, include copies of excellent work the teacher might not have seen. Did James write a convincing and successful letter to the manager of your apartment house explaining the tenants' need for new storm windows? Include copies of educational or psychological testing results or former teacher evaluations. Include in your folder note paper, a pen, and your business card or personal contact information.
Leave the sweats at home. You are there to take care of business, so dress for it. To make the best impression possible, leave the holey sweatshirt, drooping jeans, and running shoes at home. Let your appearance underscore the importance of this meeting for James and you. Arriving on time and respecting the scheduled time also wears well on teachers.
More on: Relating to the Teacher
From Teacher Says by Evelyn Porreca Vuko. Copyright © 2004. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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