Parent-Teacher Conferences: Often Not About the Student

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You have butterflies in your stomach. You are biting your fingernails. You have an appointment to meet with your child's teacher. It is the dreaded parent-teacher conference.

With school starting for millions of children, it won't be long before you get the message that it is time to meet the teacher. That one-on-one sit-down is often more stressful for the parent than it is for the child. In some cases, it is equally stressful for the teacher as well.

In fact, a University of New Hampshire study reveals the meeting is often less about the student and more about a sizing up of parent and teacher, by each other.

Danielle Pillet-Shore, assistant professor of communication at the university says, "Parents and teachers behave in a way suggesting that they are each treating the conference as an occasion for their own performance review – using the student's progress, or lack thereof, as a gauge of how the teacher is doing at his or her job of 'being a teacher' and how the parent is doing at his or her job of 'being a parent.'"

Pillet-Shore, who has been studying parent-teacher interaction for a decade, observes that parents will often criticize their own children, giving the teacher unsolicited, negative information about them.

In that way, she says, parents are attempting to show the teacher, perhaps subconsciously, they are "good" parents who recognize flaws their kids may have and are "reporting on their own efforts to improve or remedy their children's faults, shortcomings, or problems.

Teachers, on the other hand, often encourage parents to take the lead in the conversation to "articulate potential or actual student troubles first."

That, says Pillet-Shore, makes the job for teachers easier, enabling them to build upon what the parents have already said thus allowing both to explore problem areas, perhaps, a little more comfortably.

The professor's study found that, contrary to popular belief, teachers tend to go out of their way to be upbeat when assessing for parents the performance and behavior of their kids during school hours.

"It is the teacher who consistently works to end the parent-teacher conference interaction on a positive note," and "delivering future-oriented, favorable or optimistic comments about the student," says Pillet-Shore.

A comment such as, "Johnny is such a delight to have in my class" would be typical of the approach. However, a comment such as "Johnny asks so many questions" just might have a double edge to it.