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The parent-teacher conference: that semi-annual meeting where you get to talk through everything you need to know about how your kid is doing in school, what you can be doing to support them at home, and any questions or concerns you might have—all in 15-20 minutes (if you’re lucky).

It’s a lot to cover, even in a normal year. And this year, the parent-teacher conference is arguably even more important. Coming off last year’s truncated school year, many students will be behind where they otherwise would’ve been at the start of this year. And the current circumstances are anything but a return to normal. Here are some specific things to think about for the oh-so-special 2020-21 school year as you head into your first virtual meeting with your child’s teacher:


Get a clear sense of how your child is doing, relative to their grade level. This is especially important this year, when so much learning time was lost last spring. Ask the teacher directly if your child is working at grade level and ask for examples from their work and for the results of any diagnostic standardized tests. If you hear things like, “She’ll get there; it’s only November,” try to drill down. What exactly does she need to focus on? Where are the gaps? What is the teacher’s plan for getting her on track, and how can you help at home? Establishing a clear timeline will hold everyone accountable. This is an unprecedented school year, but that doesn’t make it a throwaway.


Don’t be afraid to ask about the technology. It’s a good idea to figure out what you actually need to be in charge of when it comes to technology. For example, if your kid isn’t sure how to submit an assignment electronically, will the teacher help them sort it out, or do you need to know the answer? Make sure you find out if your child is missing any assignments and all the places assignments can be found, since it’s not uncommon for some items to get lost in the internet black hole. And if there are any logins or links you still need (like grading portals, classroom sites, and other applications in use), now is the time to get clear on those, too.


Use any recent observations about your child’s learning as an advantage. Here’s one perk (if we can call it that) of remote or hybrid learning: as parents, we’re closer than ever to our children’s school experiences. If you can, take notes on what you’re seeing throughout a couple days of school—when does your child seem engaged? When are they bored? When are they struggling? Bring those notes to your conference so you can talk through particular strategies to improve their learning experience. Better yet, bring your child so they can speak for themselves, too.


Ask about the teacher’s sense of your child’s engagement. Even though you have a unique window into school this year (since a lot of it is taking place at your kitchen table), there are still plenty of things you can’t see. Ask the teacher for their perspective on how well your child is engaging with the remote lessons: Are they participating in group conversations? Responding when they’re asked questions? Even basic things like whether or not they’re keeping their video camera on during class will give you important information. See if the teacher’s impression of your child matches up with yours, and if it doesn’t, probe more deeply into the differences.


Help the teacher understand your child’s context this year. Everyone is under a lot of stress this year, including our kids. Make sure to share any information that will help the teacher understand your child’s current circumstances and what additional strain they might be under that could be affecting their school experience. (For example, job losses, the illness or death of a loved one, or other major stressors—as long as you are comfortable sharing.)


Finally, establish clear lines of communication. What’s the best way to reach the teacher if you have a concern this year? Identify the situations where you would like to be contacted (engagement is low, homework or assignments have been missed, poor test results, etc.) and request that they keep you updated regularly—via whatever mode of communication you prefer.


It might feel unfair to bombard your child’s teacher with questions, considering how much stress and strain they’re under this fall. And yes, it’s important to be considerate and understanding. Teachers are stressed. Many of them are teaching in person and remotely, sometimes at the same time. It’s...a lot. But we’re all on the same team here. The parent-teacher conference is a critical opportunity to establish that collaborative partnership. So use this time to get clear on your common goals and the strategies you’ll each use to meet them. Our kids will get through this year, but they’ll only succeed with families and schools working together.

“This is an unprecedented school year, but that doesn’t make it a throwaway.”

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