Henry and Sarah, parents of three children in suburban Atlanta, never dreaded parent-teacher conferences, especially for their oldest daughter, Kate. A smart, cheerful girl, teachers spent most of the time gushing about how wonderful Kate was. Then, when Kate was in 7th grade, the family switched schools. The philosophy was different.

At the parent-teacher conference, teachers spent a few seconds acknowledging Kate’s winning qualities. But then they took turns noting one or two areas where they thought she could improve. For example, in science, she tried to mask her weaknesses with her charming personality. And in language arts, her teacher believed she worked just hard enough to get an A. “She’s phoning it in,” the teacher said.

Henry was crushed. “I missed the gushing,” he lamented. His wife was impressed. “For once, I feel like the teachers told me things about my child I didn’t already know.”

Parent-teacher conferences are about more than just doling out good news and reviewing grades parents can find on a report card. They are a chance for teachers to talk about what’s not on the report card and for moms and dads to get their questions answered. They are an opportunity to talk about specific academic weaknesses and to learn how your child is fitting in socially.

Keep the Conversation on Track

It’s important for parents to be open to hearing what’s really going on with their child at school, even if the news isn’t all good, says Suzanne Capek Tingley, a former superintendent, principal, and teacher who, as a mom, has sat on both sides of the table. With problems out in the open, you can work with the teacher to come up with solutions.

Here are some additional tips for parents from Tingley, author of How To Handle Difficult Parents: A Teacher’s Survival Guide, a witty take on school-home communications, including relevant information for parents.

  • Decide ahead of time what you want to talk about. Make a list, bring it with you, and refer to it during the conference. Though the teacher will probably take the lead, you have a right to get your questions answered.

  • If the teacher starts to ramble or go off on a tangent, use your list to get back on point. It’s frustrating to just be asking your first question when there’s already another parent waiting at the door. “Think about what you really want to know,” Tingley says. “Make time to say what you really need to say.”

  • Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions about your child, even those you think you should already know the answers to. All kids withhold information from their parents, especially as they approach puberty. It’s not a poor reflection on you if you don’t know everything about his social or academic life.

  • Don’t use the parent-teacher conference to address broad, schoolwide issues such as the dismissal process. “Get specific information about your child,” Tingley says.

  • If you think the teacher is sugarcoating her assessment of your child, assure her you want to know the truth. “Some teachers don’t like to deliver bad news,” Tingley says. If the teacher is only saying good things, let her know you know no child is perfect and would like to hear about your child’s weaknesses as well as strengths.

  • When reviewing test scores, ask exactly what the numbers mean. It’s OK to ask how your child compares to others. You want to know if your child is doing well. Make sure you know how the test data will be used. Will it impact classroom grades? Will it be used in considering placement in honors courses or gifted programs?

  • If you have questions or concerns about homework, the parent-teacher conference is an appropriate time to ask and express them. If your child is spending several hours on homework and frequently ends up in tears, the teacher needs to know.

  • Ask about your child’s social life. Whom does he sit with at lunch? Does he have a lot of friends? Do other kids want to work with him during group projects? Does he play well with others on the playground?

  • Even if you don’t get along with your child’s teacher, remain civil and polite, as you would with any other professional, Tingley says. Being defensive, hostile, and intent on finger-pointing will not help your child. It may be tempting to take a condescending attitude toward a young, new teacher. Again, this will not help your child.

  • If you have questions that come up during the school year, you don’t have to wait for the next parent-teacher conference to ask them. You’re within your rights to request a meeting with the teacher, Tingley says. Some teachers are open to communicating via email or talking by phone in the afternoon or at night.

When teachers and parents communicate often and well, everybody wins, especially your child. The parent-teacher conference is an important way to build a relationship with your child’s teacher. By listening intently, asking pointed questions, and being open to the teacher’s point of view, you can gather the information you need to help your child have a smooth, successful year.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.