So now that students have settled in to the routine of the school year, yet another fall education ritual looms: the parent-teacher conference.
And while there's universal agreement that parent involvement is a good thing, these all-too-short meetings are often frustrating on both sides.
Teachers, and parents, often find them too short and too shallow, too likely to focus on problems, with little time to really get beyond test scores and a few bullet points about the curriculum or homework. And, as children get older, fewer parents tend to show up.
In New York City this fall, the schools are trying to make these meetings richer and more productive. The first step is increasing the number of conferences each year from two to four.
School officials are tinkering around with the format and the timing: The first conferences are happening this week — earlier than ever in the school year.
"This is crucial so that parents understand from the beginning of the year what's expected of their children," the city's schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, said this week on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show. "This is an opportunity for teachers to set out their agenda and for parents to ask the relevant questions."
The first meeting is meant to be a group experience with classroom teachers and other parents. One-on-one talks will come later in the year. (Here are some tips on how to make the most of that one-on-one time.)
"I am really excited about a parent-teacher conference that's mandated at the beginning of the year," says Nick Lawrence, who teaches social studies at East Bronx Academy for the Future, a school for grades 6-12.
"It's less about progress and more about getting to know the parents," he adds. "I see it as a time to have real conversations with the adults that we are going to be working with."
Many parents of his students work more than 80 hours a week, holding down multiple jobs, but that doesn't mean they can't be involved parents, he says.
As an example, he recalls one mother he spoke with on the phone several times a week.
"She could pick up anytime, but she couldn't come in," he explains. "Knowing that allowed me to reach her to talk about her daughter. Those are the kind of things we can figure out at this meeting."
Chancellor Farina says the notion that many parents don't care enough to come is a false one.
"I don't think we've done as good a job at letting parents know we're there to help them," she says. "I refuse to accept the premise that parents won't show up. There are lots of ways to make parents feel welcome."
How to make the most of your 10 minutes with teacher
So you finally get the chance to meet one on one with your child's teacher — now what?
Like a good Boy Scout, be prepared: Educators agree that doing your homework before a parent-teacher conference can make a big difference.
The Harvard Family Research Project's Tip Sheet for Parents suggests reviewing your child's work, grades and past teacher feedback. Ask your child about his experience at school and make a list of questions ahead of time to ask during the conference. Care.com — a website that matches up parents and child caregivers — created a list of questions to print out and take with you.
A good parent-teacher conference, experts say, should cover three major topics: the child, the classroom and the future.
Most experts suggest telling the teacher about your child: Describe what they're like at home, what interests and excites them, and explain any issues at home that may be affecting your child at school.
"Often times we don't have any understanding of what happens when a child leaves school," says Amanda Wirene, a reading specialist at the Montessori School of Englewood in Chicago. "Often parents are our only way to know what's going on at home."
Be thorough, but do be aware of the time.
"You always get that one parent who wants to stay forever and tells you in great detail all about their child," says Colleen Holmes, assistant principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Erie, Pa. Share information, she says, and if you need to talk more, schedule another time.
Ask about what's happening in the classroom — both academically and socially.
"Parents have more access to student information than ever before," says Scot Graden, superintendent of Saline Area Schools in Saline, Mich. "Chances are, anything that's going to come up at parent-teacher conferences, the student will already know about it."
By talking to your child in advance, you can ask more specific questions about grades or behaviors, says Graden.
Don't be afraid to ask the teacher to clarify what assessment or grades actually mean.
"Teachers can sometimes use educational jargon that may seem alien to you," Karen Mira writes in The Asian Parent, a parenting magazine in Singapore. "Don't be shy to ask your child's teacher to explain what a certain educational word means."
If teachers bring up areas for improvement, don't get defensive, says Holmes, the elementary school assistant principal.
And don't let the meetings be a dumping ground for pent-up concerns or frustrations.
"We don't want parents to load up on things they've wanted to discuss and are looking to have a sort of 'gotcha' moment," says Graden.
The same holds true for teachers: Lindsay Rollin, a second-grade teacher at Teachers College Community School in New York, says conferences should never be the first time parents are hearing about problems their child is having.
"I am not dropping bombs on anybody," she says.
Before the meeting is over, you should be sure you're clear on the teacher's expectations for your child.
"It's important for everyone to understand what the goal is at the end of the year," says Graden, the school superintendent. "That way you all have a stake in that success."
Spin the conversation forward and ask what you can do to help.
Parent-teacher conferences are no longer a once-a-year check-in; they can provide useful insight for immediate and clear next steps.
"Conferences are now a progress report timed so parents can actually do something about what they learn from teachers," says Heather Bastow Weiss, founder and director of the Harvard Family Research Project.
To get the most out of the conversation, she says, both the teacher and the parent should know what comes next. Brainstorm with the teacher to come up with ways to solve challenges your child faces. Ask for concrete examples of things you can do at home to help.
"Go in looking for an opportunity to get involved with supporting your child," advises Holmes, who taught for 16 years before becoming an administrator. Parents should leave knowing the resources that are available to them, says Holmes, such as teacher or school websites and assignment calendars.
Ask if the teachers can recommend resources outside of school.
"There are many out-of-school programs that can help kids improve their success in school," says Weiss. "The nonschool learning experience should be part of the conversation at conferences."
Concrete next steps are essential, says Graden. If parents feel as though they didn't get answers to all of their questions, he recommends trying to connect with the teacher again within a week.
"We want both the teacher and the parent to have a positive experience," he says. "When parents and teachers work together, the results are always better."