6 Important Questions to Ask at Your Next Parent-Teacher Conference

Each year, as we welcome students back into the classroom, we educators find ourselves with a new bunch of little people (or bigger, depending on the age you teach) who are new to us and our classrooms, but whom parents are, obviously, very familiar. The first thing teachers do is try to learn every students' name and then we figure out who these students are and how they operate in the classroom setting. Next up, it's time to pass out books, begin lessons, take grades and then before you know it, it's time for parent teacher conferences. This can be a daunting, scary thing for parents who have had bad experiences in the past, but it doesn't have to be that way if you're armed with specific questions about your child and their learning.

As a person who has been on both sides of the table, I can tell you it's not really easy on either side. Your job as a teacher is to tell families how their child is faring, what they're learning, and how you plan to help them achieve academic goals. Your job as a parent is to determine how your child will learn all these things, what their past educational experience has been like, and how you'll manage to get through another year of school. This becomes more difficult as children grow into middle and high school students because they no longer have just one teacher, but several. In our district, you have 6-8 teachers per year from grades 6 through 8 and 7-9 teachers per year all through high school. If you do the math, you realize that your child has to learn the classroom management rules and personalities of 46-60 teachers. That's dependent on whether or not they repeat teachers so it's a bit of a stress ball all rolled into adolescent angst and homework tears.

I feel your pain, parents.

But, I'm here to help. I have come up with questions that benefit both teachers, students, and parents when it comes time for the annual Parent Teacher Conferences. Most of those last only about 15-20 minutes which means you have to make the best use of your time. Here are 3 sets of questions each for parents to ask teachers and for teachers to ask parents. This list isn't inclusive, but if you have a limited amount of time then you want to ask pointed questions that get to the heart of working together with schools so that you can help your child at home. Sure, you can ask the generic "How is my child doing in your class?" but that's very general and may not get at the heart of what you need to know from your child's teacher. In many cases, it opens up a space to simply talk about behavior (usually bad) but if that's been a past issue then you aren't learning anything new. You're just hearing the same old thing from a new teacher. And where does that get you? Nowhere, usually.

My oldest son struggled the most in school and at one conference in 8th grade I heard repeatedly how he was disorganized and lacked focus (it became the F word for me that year) and by the time the 4th teacher mentioned it I stopped the conversation, took an exasperated breath, and asked, "Can you please just tell me what my son knows and doesn't know academically?" It helped shift the discussion towards something much more productive which is why I'm trying to offer help with these conversation question-starters.

Related: 28 ways to make your kid's teacher like you

For Parents:

1. What are the skills my child will be expected to learn this year and how is she doing so far? If she masters them, will she be challenged with other material? You can go into the learning styles of your child - kinesthetic, visual, auditory - to help understand the how of their learning new material. If you know what the skills are, you will know what they can work on at home.

2. How is progress monitored in your classroom and what do you do when my child doesn't learn the material? How does this affect their grade? Speaking of grades, ask teachers what percentage tests, quizzes, in-class assignments, and homework is worth. This is key. This also opens up the door to discuss classroom accommodations or what we call RtI, a Response to Intervention. Also, ask if organizational issues are part of the overall grades because THEY SHOULD NOT BE. If students are learning how to do something they ought not be penalized harshly for it.

3. How much classroom time is used to get ready for State and local assessments that you have to give? Do these things line up with the State Standards or the Common Core? Good assessments don't take time away from intended learning just so you can have students ready to pass the test, but address the skills that students need to master by age-appropriate time at each grade level.

For Teachers:

1. Does your child have a place to study and do homework in the evenings and is a routine established?This helps break through when students aren't organized or getting work done and it speaks to the organizational skills of the child. But organization is something that is learned. Some students pick it up quickly while others struggle to put their homework in their backpack and have it make it back to the classroom. Teachers need to know how much help you're willing to give so they know how much they can expect to give, too.

2. How are you able to help your child at home when they bring home assignments? What help do you think he needs more than anything? This is a very basic question that puts parents back in the position of expert on their child but it's also just helpful to ask. Many parents will offer up how they weren't good at math or reading and this gives some perspective on the culture of learning at home. We don't always get the best answers on these questions, but at least we know where we stand on our jobs in the classrooms.

3. What is your preferred method of communication with me to discuss your child's academic successes and struggles? Do you prefer email to phone calls? Have you checked my classroom website for information and grades? Many schools have gone to electronic grades where parents can sign in daily to check on their classes as well as attendance records. You can also sign up for text message updates where available. Teachers need to know how parents want to be contacted and what they are willing to be contacted about. For example, I had a mother tell me once that she doesn't ever want to hear from me about discipline because she implicitly trusted my judgment. But she always wanted to hear from me if her child didn't do an assignment or was doing poorly.

If you have other questions that may be helpful for parents, please add them below. It will help everyone during the next few weeks as schools start to schedule parent teacher conferences.

Oh, and one more thing: parents, please show up on time and don't go over your allotted space. This ruins the rest of the day and other parents get very upset when you're cutting into their scheduled conference.

-By Kelly Wickham

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