Five Ideas to Improve Parent Conferences

Amber-Chandler-Headshot-120By Amber Chandler

Until I had school-age children of my own, I did not understand the mixed emotions that parent-teacher conferences evoke from the parent perspective. The incredible weight of walking into the classroom to discuss either of my children, Zoey or Oliver, was staggering, and as a parent, I was completely taken aback.

I already had dreams mapped out for these little people. They were a huge reflection of my husband’s and my philosophies, our parenting skills, our desires, and, yes, our shortcomings. Now a teacher was asserting her right to make some decisions for my child. As we entered the unfamiliar room, to sit in teeny tiny chairs, I finally gained a sense of what it felt like from the parent side of the table.

women side by side  220Now that I’ve “been there” as a parent, the teacher me has made small changes to remove the metaphorical space between parent and teacher, and allow us to be on the same side.

There is always the exception to generalized advice, but these tweaks to my approach would have certainly helped me when I was a wide-eyed young teacher, immediately in panic mode when a parent wanted a conference.

Back then, I didn’t know that these meetings are rarely about the teacher, but about a parent’s need to do something, and the parent is often unsure what that something should be.

1. Set parameters

Full disclosure here. I once spent 35 minutes at a parent conference for one of my children that was supposed to be 15 minutes long. I more than doubled the time allotted to me. So, when parents want to go on and on, they are not likely devaluing your time, but just getting on a roll like I did and losing track of the time.

If you are meeting alone with a parent (which I don’t recommend in most situations) then you’ll need to let the parent know up front that you have a specific amount of time. If you are meeting with a team, the person least involved should mention the time parameter. Any meeting over a half hour, unless for very serious situations, is likely too long.

Time saver: Rehashing situations can be perceived as piling on, particularly if there is more than one teacher in the meeting. There is nothing wrong with saying, “I’m seeing the same thing with Suzy that Mr. Smith described.”

2. The parents are the experts about their child

The parent's view

The parent’s view

This is not always a true statement; but it’s a wise attitude to assume. If you enter a meeting with a superior attitude about your deep understanding of this person’s baby (and they are, no matter the age, all babies in their parent’s eyes) then the parent is immediately on the defensive.

Instead, ask questions. For example, “Billy has an inconsistent homework grade. Is there anything you can tell me to help me understand what is going on in that area?”

You may full well know that the parent is not supportive or that this child plays video games all night, but it is better to let him or her come to that realization than for you to make accusations. I mention this piece of advice because I think that a parent who is playing defense is likely the cause of most misunderstandings.

I am a teacher, fully versed in theoretical approaches to parent communication and collaboration, and I have walked in to a meeting in my parent role anxious and frustrated, feeling like my good name is somehow on the line. My shoulders are tensed up and my mental motor is roaring along with a combination of excuses and insinuations.

Now imagine the parent who hasn’t been inside a school in 20 years, approaching the teacher’s desk like a child sent to the principal’s office. Incidentally, don’t sit behind your desk. I wouldn’t even suggest your classroom. If possible, find a neutral space in a conference room, library, or office.

3. Don’t come empty handed

female tchr parent look rt 300Parents have very little idea what exemplary work should look like, or what their child is actually doing at school. In many cases, class expectations are unclear at best and certainly nothing like their own experience.

Bring samples of their child’s work—both the good and the not so good. Show the parents examples of what grade level work would look like, obviously removing the names. Give the parent a printed out, in-progress, grade report. Show how a student’s grade can be significantly better if the student’s quiz average improved, even doing the math right in front of them. Help them to understand that all is not lost and improvement is possible.

If, by the way, the student cannot recover, the meeting was definitely too late and all sides should own that.

We’ve all heard, time after time, that data should inform our instruction. Parents are not operating from that place. They love their child, don’t know what to do, and don’t have accurate information about their child’s performance. On the same note, don’t mislead a parent into believing that their child is an “A” student hiding in a “D” body, unless that is true.

Sometimes, no matter how hard the child tries or what turnaround plan is developed, the child is not going to reach the highest level of proficiency. The focus should be on making significant progress and the child should certainly be lauded for major improvement.

The goal of parent teacher relationships should be optimizing the experience of the student and measuring learning, not points.

4. Have a plan, but ask for the parent’s plan first

line drawing old 300Generally, a parent has not taken time off from work to just discuss a problem. Instead, parents are looking for concrete steps that are going to be taken to solve their problem. Very likely, you have a pretty good idea of what would help, but again, defer to the parent first.

Almost always the solution is really simple, as in “someone at home needs to make sure he’s doing his homework.” But it’s better for the parent to be empowered than for you to seem like you are scolding them. Collaboration is always going to trump going it alone, and a student’s success is very often the result of a whole team of adults.

If the parents don’t seem able to put together a plan, then “How about this? What if Tommy had to show you the completed homework, even if he says he finished it in study hall? That way, you’ll be assured that it is actually complete. If we are still having problems after a few weeks, we can strategize again.”

5. Thank them for their involvement

smiling tchr at table 220When I first started teaching, I was shocked to find out that many parents looked at school as the teacher’s job and did not want to be involved or “mess things up.” More often they thought that I was the professional in charge and it wasn’t their place to tell me how to do my job or question me.

While that may sound refreshing at times, always deferring to the teacher isn’t the best strategy for student success. Parents who meet with you can share something valuable about their child. They have often overcome several obstacles to be there, as well as built up their nerve. Thank them for their help and let them know that you value their input and see your relationship as a partnership on behalf of the student.

Parents (including me!) want to feel like they are contributing to the solution, and if you allow them to, they very likely will have a positive influence.

Amber Rain Chandler teaches 7th grade English Language Arts at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, NY, a suburb of Buffalo. A certified School Building Leader, Amber also teaches Methods in English Teaching at Medaille College and leads staff development on Differentiation for the Southtown Teachers Center.  She blogs at AFT’s Voices from the Classroom and her own website. Follow her on Twitter @msamberchandler.

Photo credit: cover image

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