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How to Get What You Want from the Teacher

Absolute No-No's
When parents walk into the classroom for a parent-teacher conference, teachers instantly scan them for clues about their attitude. Will they be friendly or hostile? Open-minded or rigid? Throughout the meeting, the parents' words and behavior paint a picture that will follow them throughout their child's career at the school. "Parents don't think about the fact that teachers talk to one another," explains Marna Biederman. "You get your new class and other teachers will say, 'Oh, that father is so critical,' or, 'They're phonies.'" To foster warm relations with the teacher and avoid getting a bad reputation:

Don't enter the classroom clutching a stack of your child's papers. "When you see them with the child's papers in their hands, it means they're going to challenge you," notes Biederman. "Even if they only mean to come in and say, 'How lovely – he got a C,' that's not what's coming across when they walk in with those papers." If you must show the teacher your child's papers, keep them in your purse or otherwise concealed until you've established some rapport with her.

Don't criticize other teachers, the principal, or the school. Why should a teacher feel greater allegiance to you than to the people she works with? Your criticism will probably make her feel defensive or mistrustful of you.

Don't criticize other parents or children. Keep your questions focused on your child. If you believe a particular student is giving your child a hard time – for instance, bullying or teasing him – broach the subject calmly and give specific examples and the names of witnesses, if you have any. There are two sides to every conflict, and the teacher may be able to fill you in on the side you are unaware of.

Don't accuse the teacher of playing favorites or picking on your child. "We've heard the whole nine yards," says Ivy. "You don't like my child. You have it in for her. You have favorites. You like boys more than girls." Biederman recalls what happened when she told one mother that her daughter needed to raise her hand in class instead of blurting out the answers. The girl's mom retorted, "Well, I know something about you. Another parent told me, 'If Mrs. Biederman likes your child, you're golden, but if not, watch out!'" Outbursts such as this won't help your child. On the contrary, they will make teachers want to avoid you, which may mean avoiding or neglecting your child.

Don't fib about your child. No child is perfect, and most parent-teacher conferences include at least a few minutes' worth of criticism about the child. Unfortunately, some parents can't handle bad news. Their response, perhaps out of fear, is to deny any knowledge of their child's shortcomings. "This is a very common complaint in the teacher's lounge," says Biederman. "A parent will look at you with wide-open eyes and say, 'This is the first time anyone's ever said anything!'"

If your child has been in the school for more than one year, you can assume that prior to your meeting, his teacher has conferred with teachers from the previous years. If you feign ignorance about poor past performance or behavior, she will probably know you are lying. Your denial and lack of support may put a damper on her efforts to work with your child. Biederman elaborates: "You begin to think, 'I'm not really going to get anywhere with this parent.' In a funny way, it makes me stop trying to solve the problem, although I'll never stop trying to make the child's year happier."

For Your Child's Future, Control Yourself
Your behavior at your child's school can have far-reaching effects on his education, especially if you plan to enroll him in a private school at some point. Says Marna Biederman, "Very often parents are not aware, even though I know my superiors have told them, that the middle schools to which their sixth-graders are applying really consider what the parents are like, not just what their pocketbooks are like. And there are some parents who are totally unable to control themselves when they come in to talk about their child."

A teacher at an exclusive girls' high school put it even more bluntly: "The admission interviews are to check out the parents, not the children. The staff wants to weed out the bullying parents who are going to cause everyone a lot of grief." Parent-teacher conferences are wonderful practice for those interviews.

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

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