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How to Get What You Want from the Teacher

Magic Words and Deeds: The Conference
"Sometimes parents come to the conference with their own agendas and misinterpret what I say, and that can put up barriers," says Karen Ivy, who teaches fourth grade at a private school. "Even veteran teachers get very defensive if they don't know parents well and feel like they're being blindsided." When teachers get defensive, they close up. You are there to get their perspective, and you want them to be as candid as possible. Although you are in their territory, it is up to you to make them feel comfortable enough to tell you the whole truth about your child. The following strategies will help.

Flatter first, ask questions later. Every teacher wants to know she is making a difference. Therefore, if the first words out of your mouth are a compliment, you'll instantly gain her goodwill. Karen Ivy explains, "If a parent comes in and says, 'We showed your progress report to both sets of grandparents,' that just makes me glow. It makes all the effort and strain and anxiety worthwhile, to know that I've mattered."

"Positive feedback is very important for teachers because we certainly don't get it monetarily," observes sixth-grade teacher Marna Biederman.

Tell the teacher how much your child trusts her. Trust is a big issue for teachers. They like to know not only that you trust them with your child's education, but that your child trusts them, too. You can get this across by relating something your child has said about the teacher's skill, such as, "Hillary says you explain math better than any other teacher she's had." If you need ammunition, ask your child to tell you a few positive things about the teacher before you go to the conference.

Voice your respect. Equality with parents is another major issue for teachers. "You wouldn't tell your dentist how to fill your tooth, but some parents who are not educators find it very comfortable to tell a teacher how she should be teaching," says Karen Ivy. "Some people forget that we're professionals, that we have degrees and credentials." Since this is such a sore spot, it pays to mention that you've noticed the teacher's expertise. Be as specific as you can: "I've been really impressed with the science curriculum this year, especially the rain forest section."

Give feedback about your child. "Both parties need to present positive ideas," says Maureen Van Evenhoven, who teaches kindergarten at an inner-city public school. She reports that some parents sit mutely, too tired or uninterested to contribute to the conversation. And the problem isn't unique to working-class moms and dads. At the private school where Karen Ivy teaches, some parents have a similarly passive attitude: "The tuition here is frightfully expensive. Parents think that because they're paying so much, everything should be taken care of for them."

The fact is that your child is competing with at least twenty others for the teacher's attention. She may know his academic strengths and weaknesses, but other information can help her see new ways to inspire him. You might mention his favorite books, computer games, TV programs, movies, sports, hobbies, music, his schedule, and household obligations such as caring for a sibling. The more information the teacher has about your child, the better she'll be able to teach him.

Use positive language to describe your child, even if you are discussing a problem. The way you perceive your child will have a great impact on the way the teacher perceives her. For instance, if the teacher reports that your daughter has been rowdy and undisciplined in class, you can respond honestly but put a positive spin on it: "Jenny is really enthusiastic, and that's one of the things we love about her. But we're trying to get her to learn some self-control at home, too. Do you have any suggestions?" Enlisting the teacher's help reinforces your faith in her. If you reply, "She's a handful, isn't she?" you are giving the teacher tacit permission to label your child difficult instead of enthusiastic. If that happens, the teacher may relax her efforts to work with your child.

Keep an open mind. "Put away your judgments of the teacher, the situation, and the school," advises Maureen Van Evenhoven. Don't assume that the teaching staff isn't committed just because the campus doesn't have a large grassy field, a new library, or lots of computers. Some of the most dedicated teachers work their magic in unlovely classrooms. Van Evenhoven, for example, spearheaded an innovative reading program at her inner-city campus.

Use positive body language. Yes, the chairs are small. But most people can manage to sit in them for twenty or thirty minutes without squirming. Teachers like it when you stay in your chair, look them in the eye, and pay attention to what they are saying. They resent it when parents stand and hover over them or wander around the room during the conference, scanning the walls for their child's artwork or essays. In other words, teachers want the same type of attentive behavior from you that they expect from your child.

From Say the Magic Words by Lynette Padwa. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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