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updated: 10/31/2012 3:09 PM

What parents should know about parent-teacher conferences

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  • For some parents, teacher conferences are bound to raise anxiety levels, especially if the words "weak executive function" are spoken.

    For some parents, teacher conferences are bound to raise anxiety levels, especially if the words "weak executive function" are spoken.
    SHNS illustration by Hollie Sehrt and Cindy Rodrig

By J. Hope Babowice

For some parents, the childhood memory of parent-teacher conferences brings to mind teachers calling parents on the carpet for the student's academic shortfalls.

"I remember getting that nervous stomach feeling when my parents would go talk to my teacher," said Kristi Thompson of Libertyville, mother of kindergartner Ryan Thompson. In a few weeks, Kristi will be attending her first parent- teacher conference.

So much of what we remember from our school days is vastly different for our children, and Thompson and other parents new to parent-teacher conferences will be surprised to learn that today's conferences focus on partnership and positive feedback. From pre-K through eighth grade, the teacher collaborates with parents to construct the best possible educational opportunities for the student. Depending on the grade level, many conferences feature the students as moderators who present a portfolio of work that best defines what he or she has been learning.

Once in high school, students are expected to take charge of their academic progress, so parent-teacher conferences generally focus on areas of improvement. "It's a really important topic for us" said Nancy Holman, principal at Elk Grove Village High School.

Whether students are in pre-K or 12th grade, research shows that the best tool for academic achievement is parent and caregiver involvement. Judy Pappas, principal at the K-8 S t. James School in Arlington Heights, sees the conference as a chance to align on the same team.

"Parent conferences enable parents to get a good picture of what's happening," Pappas said. "The parent has the opportunity to see the environment the child is learning in and begins to further develop a partnership with the teacher."

Parents can prepare for conferences by asking their child if they have any concerns about their schoolwork. Conferences last about 20 minutes, so making the most of the meeting means preparing notes. How is my child progressing? Is he or she mastering grade-level skills? How can I help? Let the teacher lead the conference and make sure there's time to address your questions.

"Any parent who simply comes to a conference is doing something great for their child by being involved with their child's school and showing their child that they care about how he or she is doing in school," said Katherine Crawford, fifth-grade teacher at West Oak Middle School, Mundelein.

Like Pappas, Crawford stresses the importance of parent-teacher communication. "Parents do not ever have to wait for a conference to ask questions and should feel free to make contact whenever needed," Crawford said.

Over and over again, elementary and middle school teachers will offer this advice, "Read, read, read." Maria Barba, third-grade teacher at MacArthur International Spanish Academy in Hoffman Estates and 2012 Golden Apple Award winner tells parents, "Make sure they read every day -- including weekends -- and are thinking and talking about what they are reading."

Student-led conferences, generally offered in grade three and up, are an opportunity for students to select work that best exemplifies their abilities. Pappas said they also give teachers some clues about family dynamics which help them to better understand the student. "Teachers can see interactions between parents and their children. They see the levels of cooperation and can identify who is in charge of learning. It should be a positive experience in which children are proud to talk about what they've learned and achieved."

Once in high school parents can check grades frequently, even daily, online. "Parents should do their homework before the conference," said Glenn Simon, associate principal of instruction at Elk Grove Village High School. "The conference is more productive if the parent already knows how the student is doing."

Sharon Wedam, director of guidance at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, said students should also attend conferences. If there's a misunderstanding about an assignment or grade, parents shouldn't wait for a scheduled conference. Wedam suggests sending an email to the teacher for clarification.

"There are many more stakeholders supporting a student today than there used to be," Simon said.

"If a student should be performing better, how are we helping? Our educational program is a partnership between all the teachers, the student and parents."

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