School Conferences

The notice just arrived from school that it’s parent-teacher conference time.  Whether you greet the news with dread or enthusiasm, get ready to make some plans.  Across the country parents are gearing up to experience their first one-on-one interaction with the person who spends more waking hours with their child than they do.  Will the news be good or bad?  How will it reflect on them?  What can be done?

Lisa Brandt, a veteran kindergarten teacher in Eau Claire, Wis., has seen the panic in parents’ eyes when they arrive at their first conference.

“It’s important to realize that teachers are all on the parents’ side with the common goal being the child’s success,” says Brandt.

Aside from the fact that parents all spent 12+ years learning to respect – and perhaps sometimes to feartheir teachers, it’s time to redefine that attitude in an effort to benefit the kids.  Parents need to see teachers as useful partners who will help shape their children into the adults they will someday become.  Likewise, teachers view parents’ inside knowledge about their children’s abilities and personalities as the keys that will make teaching a much simpler task.  Brandt explains that one simple comment from a parent like, “Suzie’s best friend moved away last year,” might explain a whole host of behaviors and challenges that can be easily overcome by a teacher armed with this new insight.

Guy Granger, the father of two Seattle teens who is seasoned at this type of conference, says, “Most important:  Be pleasant and supportive.”  Being defensive about your child’s performance will only be destructive.  The value of this meeting will come from being constructive as you learn where challenges and growth areas lie for your son or daughter.

Make it a point to listen to what the teacher has to say.  He or she will have gathered work samples to share and will have identified some key elements to discuss with you.  Try to learn what the teacher’s goals are for your child during this school year, and feel free to share your own.  Be ready to take notes as you talk about one of your favorite topics: your child.

In order to prepare for a conference, make a list of points that are of concern to you and your son or daughter so that you don’t forget what to talk about.  The meetings are brief and fly by quickly, so be on time, come without children in tow if possible, and have your questions ready.  The National Education Association suggests the following questions as a place to start:

  • How well does my child get along with others?
  • What are my child’s best and worst subjects?
  • Is my child working up to his or her ability?
  • Does my child participate in class discussions and activities?
  • Have you noticed any sudden changes in the way my child acts? For example, have you noticed any squinting, tiredness or moodiness that might be a sign of physical or other problems?
  • What kinds of tests are being done? What do the tests tell about my child’s progress?
  • How does my child handle taking tests?
  • How can my child do better, and what can I do to help?

The teacher and student are only two corners of this important triangle.  At the parent-teacher conference, you will have an opportunity to find out how you can enrich and strengthen the learning environment.  Ask the teacher how you can participate with the class, volunteer in the school or supplement your child’s educational experience.  Exchange e-mail addresses so that you can quickly message questions or concerns whenever they arise.

The first parent-teacher conference of the year is an opportunity to set the tone for the months and grades ahead.  Make it positive.  Don’t worry that your child is a direct reflection of you and become argumentative.  Rather, make this the first step to being in constant communication with your child’s teacher.  Kids are smart.  If they find that the parents and teachers are all on the same page, they will sooner realize that school is important and requires their full attention.

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How Was Your Day….?

How many times has a query about your child’s day been met with a glazed stare, shrugged shoulders or the one-word answer, “Fine.”  Getting into the mind of a child can be akin to breaking into Fort Knox.  There has to be a secret code, but what is it?  It seems impossible, but there are some sure-fire ways to engage your child and become privy to the goings-on about which every parent wants to be aware.

Plant the seed of communication before your child even knows what you are up to.  Make a routine of snuggling your daughter into bed with the lights out and whispering in her ear, “What was the best part of your day?”  Be sure to include asking about the worst part, too.  That might be the one part of the day she wouldn’t have told you about otherwise, perhaps the root of anxiety or unhappiness that you can then handle before it becomes a larger issue.  Offer your highs and lows, too, edited for young ears, so that she can see that everyone has ups and downs in life and that you value her enough to share yours.  You will soon earn her trust in return and be included in her private thoughts.

Joan Bohmann, PhD NCSP, is the director of professional standards and continuing professional development for the National Association of School Psychologists and a supporter of laying groundwork as soon as possible for family communication.

“If, during early school years, children know that the parent is going to ask what they learned today, it becomes a standard topic in which all are expected to take part.  Then the pattern is set for older years.”

Brittany Granger, a Seattle teen, is experienced in the communication battle between generations.  She suggests treating kids with sincerity.  If children feel belittled, they will withdraw, and if they feel threatened, they will hide truths and avoid any communication at all.

Says Granger, “Parents need to gain the trust of their child if they expect to be told anything.  They need to listen and respect the feelings and thoughts of the child.  Parents need to look at the situation, whatever it is, from the child’s point of view, be calm and respectful and not yell or swear.”

Bohmann agrees and adds, “Parents need to be careful to listen and validate the students’ point of view rather than jump in with the ‘right answer’ or ‘right way’ to think about something.”

Meet your son’s friends and teachers.  Volunteer in the school if you have time, and participate with class activities as often as possible.  Schools are constantly sending home announcements.  Scour them for potential conversation starters about upcoming projects, school programs, retiring teachers, peer successes and any other topic you can find.   Ask your son’s friends carefully placed questions, and the answers you receive will become conversation-starters to use at home.

A question that can be answered with a one-word answer most likely will be, so ask open-ended questions that can’t possibly be satisfied with a “yes,” “no-,” or “fine-,” answer.  Instead of asking how your daughter’s day was, ask about specifics.  Ask what kind of math problems she is working on, what she read during her free time and what exercises she did in gym class.  You’ll get short answers, but each will open a door to more questions.  Relate similar stories from your youth, and you’ll likely elicit questions that can easily be bounced back to her.

Consider your child’s age when you gear up for an after school-chat.  Younger kids will be open and eager to tell you about their day right away.  Parental attention at that age is key, and they’re ripe for conversation.  Tweens and teens usually need a little time to themselves before they’re willing to talk.  It’s better to let them come home and shift gears from school to family before you start asking questions.

Of older kids, Bohmann suggests, “Ask questions about the day while working on another task.  If the student helps set or clear the table, that may be a good time to talk.  Boys might do better while engaged in an activity such as shooting baskets or being active.”

In any case, you must be a super-sleuth to gather the tidbits that will point the way into your child’s mind.  Tiny clues about their life litter yours, and it’s your job to collect them.  The treasure you gain will be a life-long bond with one of the people you hold most dear.

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What About Education Budget Cuts?

School districts in every state are facing unprecedented budget cuts. Class sizes are on the rise while time in class decreases, and many schools are closing. The quality of education is in a downward spiral as districts fight to keep their lights on and classrooms supplied with minimum necessities.

The picture is gloomy, but there’s a lot you can do to help.


Before you can fight back, you need to understand how the structure works. Budget cuts are a national problem, but according to the Department of Education, only about 10 percent of elementary and secondary education funding comes from federal coffers. The rest comes from state, local and private sources, so there are 50 different structures for funding nearly 99,000 public schools, about 56 million students.

State funds are complex to understand and often have minimums and caps that vary from state to state. In Wisconsin, for example, the state spending cap has not kept up with inflation. This means an annual local referendum is vital to maintain the status quo, and these are increasingly difficult to pass.

Roughly 46 percent of funds come from local taxes that are based on local wealth. A difference of as much as $6,000 might exist between the amount spent on each student in an affluent district and those in struggling neighborhoods.

Calculate how much money your district needs to make ends meet, and set a goal. Research how voters turn out in your area, and gear your efforts appropriately.


There is power in numbers. In Eau Claire, Wis., pockets of disgruntled people who wanted to reinstate field-trip funding achieved success only when every PTA/PTO in town joined together. The same kind of organization and focus are necessary to pass much-needed referendums, but to raise funds and lobby your community in support of one, you will likely have to register with your state as a Political Action Committee – whether you are a group of two or 200.


Use catchy phrases, colorful photos and constant media attention to get people interested. Kim and Jim McNulty of the Stoughton School District in Wisconsin worked with four other couples to form Keep Improving and Developing our Schools, K.I.D.S. Their group created yard signs that called out, “Vote Yes for Quality Schools,” a phrase that yielded support for their referendum.

A bright, memorable logo, too, is helpful in burning your message into public minds. The Eau Claire field-trip group hung a sign from a school bus that read, “Pave the Way to Lifelong Learning.” Road sections were added as the fundraiser moved toward its ultimate goal.


Get the word out about your cause. The more your effort is in the news, the more support you’ll garner. Look among your team for a PR person who is skilled in courting the media, a graphics artist to create logos and an accountant to organize finances.

A website, Facebook and e-mail are essential to communicate your issue to the world and drum up help, but some voters still prefer to be contacted by print, radio, TV or phone. Door-to-door canvassing is also an effective way to gather support. Establish a presence at community events to educate your neighbors about your mission.


Bake sales and car washes aren’t enough. In addition to asking for general donations, research grants available for education funding and go to, where grant-writing is demystified. Donna Fernandez of SchoolGrants suggests creating a nonprofit education foundation to generate otherwise unavailable funds.

“Many grants that are not available directly to schools are available to nonprofits that lend assistance to schools,” said Fernandez.

Partnerships with corporate sponsors can be lucrative, too. Joe Sanfelippo, principal of Roosevelt Elementary School in Eau Claire, says a partnership with Nestle has funded his Reading Is Fundamental program and an after-school homework help program.

The Box Tops For Education program ( can supply up to $20,000 per school for coupons clipped from packaging. Among other programs are Kemps dairy products, which offer a Nickels for Schools program, and Campbell’s Labels for Education.

Local businesses, too, are eager to support education. Sanfilippo partners with a restaurant that shares 10 percent of its dinner profit on predetermined dates. Other businesses look for tax advantages by making education donations or matching funds.


Education Secretary Arne Duncan has estimated that as many as 300,000 educators in the United States will get pink slips this year. As you focus attention on your neighborhood or district, remember that a combined effort between schools, districts and states can change the crumbling structure.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has introduced the Keep Our Educators Working Act. By creating a $23 billion Education Jobs Fund, he aims to keep teachers, principals, librarians and other school personnel working through the budget shortfalls of each state.

“ Job losses of this magnitude would take a terrible toll on our education system, resulting in bigger class sizes, fewer program offerings and less time for students to learn in school. This would be a major setback for the nation’s economic recovery,” Harkin said.