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Parent Parley During The Ritual Of Parent-Teacher Conferences, The Topics Often Range Far Beyond Academic Performance

The parent-teacher conference was finished. But the mother wasn’t.

She followed the teacher into the restroom, said Sigrid Brannan, “where I was doing what all human beings do when they go to the bathroom. I heard this voice say, ‘Mrs. Brannan?’

“It made me realize that when it comes to your children - there are no barriers,” said Brannan with a laugh. A former teacher, she is now principal at Otis Orchards Elementary School.

Parent-teacher conferences offer - for 30 minutes - a seamless joining of the two halves of most children’s lives. Undetected absences, health problems, family issues, study habits - in an ideal world, all is uncovered during a parent-teacher conference.

Conferences are starting next week at most schools in the Spokane Valley. Once a custom for only elementary schools, these face-toface conversations are finding their way into more junior highs and high schools around the Valley.

Teachers have to come prepared for almost anything.

One principal told of a conference in which the teachers mentioned a puzzling downturn shown by the child. The teachers wondered: Were they causing it, somehow?

“The mother began to cry and said, ‘No, you’re not doing anything wrong. It’s just that my husband has left the home.’

“The teachers were dumbfounded. They said ‘Oh, there’s so much we could have done to help - if we had only known,”’ the principal said.

Some teachers find themselves in impromptu marriage counseling sessions.

Sometimes a teacher’s anecdote will send a parent looking for the nearest hiding place. During one conference, Phyllis Betts, now principal at University Elementary School, recounted a child’s comment about Betts’ red nail polish.

“‘You should wear that color all the time,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t make you look so old,”’ Betts said. “I thought that mother was going to die.”

One evening last week at West Valley High School conferences, parents picked out their children’s teachers around the school gym.

The conversations went like this:

“I want to see him do better. He’s got three weeks left until the end of the semester. He can turn that C around and get it up to a B,” English teacher Elizabeth Rose told one boy’s parents. She explained several ways he could earn extra credit, including seeing a local play and writing his own review.

“All he’s interested in now is snowmobiles,” replied the father.

Or this: “She’s getting an A,” said physical education teacher Dirk Linton. “Her participation is really good.”

“Is she behaving herself?” asked a mom.

“Oh, yeah.”

“Quiet? Reserved?” asked the mother.

“Oh, yeah,” said Linton. And the talk turned to the student’s weight training.

Or this:

“Did he share with you about the test he just took?” asked biology teacher Bob Bohlen.

“Are you kidding?” said the boy’s dad. “To talk to him you wouldn’t even know he goes to school.” The student had done exceptionally well on the test.

West Valley High School is in its first year of parent-teacher conferences. East Valley is in its third. Both schools offer parents the chance to attend, and encourage certain parents to come in. Neither expects that all parents will show.

Under this system, parents of good students tend to attend conferences faithfully, said West Valley Principal Cleve Penberthy and several West Valley teachers.

About 100 West Valley students had at least one parent attend last week’s conferences. In the fall, the figure was about 163. Despite the decline, Penberthy said feedback is good. “The message to me is to keep this going.”

Kerry Hawley, a counselor at East Valley, rated turnout there last week as a pleasant surprise, including parents of a wide range of students. “This way they get to talk about their main area of interest: their kid,” he said.

Central Valley schools offer parent-teacher conferences only for elementary students. Horizon Junior High School Principal Roger Fox is working on a plan for conferences later this spring.

Freeman junior high and high school teachers schedule only some of their students at conference time. “Ones we think we can make a difference in,” said Nancy Comstock, principal at Freeman Elementary School.

No matter what age child they work with, educators agree on a few things:

Bringing together parents, teachers - and often children, too - can have excellent results.

“It’s a good rapport builder,” said Freeman High School counselor Ted Lundgren. One payoff is students who are willing to work harder.

Two Freeman teenagers who were brought in for conferences last spring have won student-of-the-month honors for their progress this year, he said.

Parents who not only come to parent-teacher conferences but stay involved in their children’s education help their kids the most, said Principal Brannan.

“Academics are really the icing on the cake,” she said. “If kids come to school with the raw tools for learning, the parent-teacher conference becomes a celebration, a check on how the cake is baking.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: GET THE MOST OUT OF CONFERENCES Last week, an anxious gradeschool teacher caught her principal in the hall for a moment. “Do you think it’s OK if I suggest to the mom that (her daughter) would be better off with some new friends?” The answer was yes. Friends are fair game for discussion at parent-teacher conferences. Ditto grades and homework, of course. But, “so many times we find the biggest pressure isn’t the child’s academic success, but ‘how is my child doing as a person? Sometimes he says he eats lunch all by himself. Is he doing OK?”’ said Phyllis Betts, principal at University Elementary School. The twice-a-year conferences can be most helpful to parents who have done some homework, educators say. Here are some ways parents can prepare to talk with their child’s teacher: Come in with an open mind and the intent to work with your child’s teacher as a partner. Your child’s description of a class or a teacher may not be complete. “There’s that old smart-alecky quote,” said Otis Orchards Elementary Principal Sigrid Brannan, “‘We will only believe half of what we hear about your home, if you only believe half of what you hear about our school.”’ Write down your questions. For divorced parents, invite the non-custodial parent to come along. If that’s not possible, at least let the non-custodial parent know that if they ask, schools will get them copies of your child’s report card. Ask about your child’s study habits. Does she follow directions? Use time well? One set of parents at West Valley High School conferences last week was told their son sometimes forgets to bring his book to class. “It’s hard to learn Romeo and Juliet when you don’t have the book,” said teacher Elizabeth Rose. Talk with your child before the conference. Ask about concerns, successes, likes and dislikes that the teacher should know about. Talk with your child after the conference. Use this as a chance to praise your child. Then, figure out how to strengthen areas of concern. Marny Lombard

This sidebar appeared with the story: GET THE MOST OUT OF CONFERENCES Last week, an anxious gradeschool teacher caught her principal in the hall for a moment. “Do you think it’s OK if I suggest to the mom that (her daughter) would be better off with some new friends?” The answer was yes. Friends are fair game for discussion at parent-teacher conferences. Ditto grades and homework, of course. But, “so many times we find the biggest pressure isn’t the child’s academic success, but ‘how is my child doing as a person? Sometimes he says he eats lunch all by himself. Is he doing OK?”’ said Phyllis Betts, principal at University Elementary School. The twice-a-year conferences can be most helpful to parents who have done some homework, educators say. Here are some ways parents can prepare to talk with their child’s teacher: Come in with an open mind and the intent to work with your child’s teacher as a partner. Your child’s description of a class or a teacher may not be complete. “There’s that old smart-alecky quote,” said Otis Orchards Elementary Principal Sigrid Brannan, “‘We will only believe half of what we hear about your home, if you only believe half of what you hear about our school.”’ Write down your questions. For divorced parents, invite the non-custodial parent to come along. If that’s not possible, at least let the non-custodial parent know that if they ask, schools will get them copies of your child’s report card. Ask about your child’s study habits. Does she follow directions? Use time well? One set of parents at West Valley High School conferences last week was told their son sometimes forgets to bring his book to class. “It’s hard to learn Romeo and Juliet when you don’t have the book,” said teacher Elizabeth Rose. Talk with your child before the conference. Ask about concerns, successes, likes and dislikes that the teacher should know about. Talk with your child after the conference. Use this as a chance to praise your child. Then, figure out how to strengthen areas of concern. Marny Lombard

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