A few years ago, I finally figured out the system. The prescribed times for fall conferences only offered enough time to run through a brief summary of initial classroom evaluations and current projects; if there were other issues to be discussed, I had to get the teacher's attention well before conference time. For the most part, those summary conferences have been sufficient. Occasionally, though, I've had bigger concerns that these short meetings can't address.
Establish communication early
Round about open house time in the first couple weeks of the school year, I find out the method of communication preferred by my child's teacher - then I use it. I introduce myself, briefly mention any on-going concerns - and ask to meet with the teacher sooner rather than later. Some teachers are completely open to this communication, and some aren't.
When a teacher is open - well, phew! But when a teacher isn't, I usually have to do some reassuring about why I want to meet with her, and insist that we do so. Then I am careful to work around the teacher's schedule and keep the meeting as to-the-point as possible.
Usually, after this first meeting, when the teacher doesn't have another parent waiting already and realizes that I'm trying to do my best for my child - and not being a helicopter parent just for the sake of it - the ice is broken and I find the teacher and I can work together for the benefit of my child.
After the first meeting, I try to keep communication with the teacher at an appropriate level - not too much and not too little. Depending on the concern, once every week or so has been about right. Unless another big issue comes up, this is usually fine. It's also a two-way street! If I want the teacher to respond to me in a timely manner, I must also respond to the teacher in a timely manner. I respect the teacher's time and that she has many children to look out for; in trying to help my child, I can't monopolize her time to the detriment of the other children.
Because of my efforts for a first, less pressured meeting and subsequent communication, I find that the official conference time a few weeks later is less stressful, and more a check-in in how things are going. And the meeting is usually shorter than the allotted time, allowing the teacher a breather before that next parent comes in. We're already something of a known quantity with one another.
From that point on, I try to keep communication with the teacher and goals for my child focused on what is age, grade, and individually appropriate. The teacher also knows they can count on me to follow-through with school-related tasks. Usually I'll ask for one or two follow-up meetings later in the year (again, scheduled around the teacher and kept to the point) to keep everything on track. So far, so good - my children's teachers and I have made good teams in getting my kids what they need in the classroom.
Say thank you
I find an important part of this increased communication is saying thank you to the teacher. Every once in a while, I make a point of sending a brief note or email to the teacher to let him or her know that I appreciate the communication and the consideration. At the end of the year, I also try to let the principal of the school know that the teacher has been good about communicating and working with me. These little tidbits of acknowledgment and appreciation can smooth future interactions - and it's just plain the right thing to do. Everyone likes to be appreciated, after all.
Regardless of whether there are educational concerns or issues for your child or not, establishing and maintaining open positive communication with the school is important. Since figuring out this level of communication with the school, I feel far more comfortable with what and how my kids are learning.