A meaningful academic connection

Parent-teacher meetings are `about partnership'

November 18, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jennifer McBeth has been teaching at Oakland Mills High School since 1984, and she can count on one hand the number of parent-teacher conferences that have gone badly, she said.

Those were the times that parents did not know their child was failing or opted to blame the teacher for a child's poor grades.

Mostly, these 15-minute sessions are helpful to the teacher and the student, McBeth said. And she wishes more parents would take advantage of the format, especially the parents of struggling children.

"You try to reach out to these parents because they are a valuable resource," she said. Often, parents can share with teachers strategies that have worked in the past or provide insights into a child's learning style that can make a difference in the classroom, said McBeth, a math teacher and provider of instructional support.

Tomorrow through Wednesday, thousands of Howard County parents will participate in the twice-a-year ritual known as parent-teacher conferences. Often perched in too-small chairs, parents will meet their children's teachers, sometimes for the first time, and discuss the child's academic life.

Teachers and principals say conferences should not be the place for surprises. Parents who keep up with progress reports and graded papers that are sent home know how their children are doing. But the conferences provide a meaningful connection between two people who want the best for that child: the teacher and the parent.

Brad Herling, principal of Clarksville Elementary School, said about 90 percent of parents at his school attend the conferences. "They're designed to go over report cards, which just came out," he said.

"They are an opportunity for parents to ask questions such as, how did the teacher come up with a particular grade? Or more generally, how is my child doing?" he said. "If the parents have particular concerns or issues, that's the time to bring them up."

He added: "Parents should not go in and try to badger the teacher or try to lay all the blame at the feet of the teacher for something that's not successful."

Howard County does not have specific requirements for the conferences, said Patti Caplan, a school system spokeswoman. But new teachers receive training on how to navigate the meetings, and a videotape on the topic is also available, she said.

Carolyn Jameson, the principal of Bonnie Branch Middle School, said staff development meetings help teachers decide what topics are to be discussed and go over ways to make the meeting successful. "It's really about partnership, about establishing a partnership with parents," she said.

"There are always going to be situations where you would have to massage the situation to make sure you're on the same page."

At the elementary level, parents meet with their child's homeroom teacher and sometimes the math teacher. When a student is in middle school or high school, the conferences get more complicated. Parents must be proactive in scheduling conferences with the teachers they most want to meet, sometimes as many as six.

Jameson said the county has a Web-based program called Pick-A-Time that allows them to schedule conferences. Sometimes, a teacher will request a conference with the parent of a struggling student, but more often, it is up to the parent to set up the meeting.

Jameson noted that parents are encouraged to sit down with teachers or communicate with them by phone or e-mail. "We always say to parents that every day is conference day," she said.

Parents can also track how their children are doing through another Web-based program, Teacher Ease, which shows grades and assignments, she said.

Even when parents know how a child is doing, the conferences are valuable, McBeth said. "It gives the teacher a chance to reflect on one student," she said.

And for parents, the meetings open communication with the teacher. "You've set the groundwork to say, `I do care, and I am available,'" she said.

At Burleigh Manor Middle School, eighth-grade team leader Brian McDonald said most parents come to the conferences looking for an update on their child, or advice on how to help a struggling student.

By the time conferences roll around, the semester's grades have been set, so arguing for a change is useless, he said. More helpful would be discussions about whether a child is placed at the right level, or whether a tutor would be beneficial, said McDonald, who teaches geometry and algebra.

The conferences are the place to discuss a student's academic career going into high school, he said. A student in a high-level math class in middle school might not thrive at the same level in high school, he said.

His advice for parents: Come prepared, and know what you want to discuss. And if there is a problem, don't wait for conference time. "If a child's struggling, it's really best to address it as soon as possible," he said.

TIPS FOR THIS WEEK'S MEETINGS

A few tips for getting the most out of the parent-teacher conferences:

Beforehand: Look over your child's report card, any notes sent home and other materials from the semester. Are there areas of concern? Do you understand the grading system? Talk with your child. Does he like school? Is he doing well? Are there issues he would like you to discuss with his teacher?

During the conference: Remember that you and the teacher want the same thing - a successful educational experience. Listen with an open mind and take notes. Ask if there are things you can do at home to help your child learn. Share insights, such as teaching strategies that have worked for your child, or issues such as problems at home. These can help the teacher.

After the conference: Talk to your child about what was discussed. Praise him for what he has done well and discuss areas of improvement. Follow up on teacher suggestions. Keep in touch with teachers on a regular basis.

Source: Howard County Public School System

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