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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Last week I spent an afternoon coaching teachers on preparing for parent conferences. That same day, after work, I attended my son's fall parent-teacher conference. Given these different perspectives on this tradition, I figured I could share some thoughts for making these conferences meaningful and rewarding for all.

1. Approach Parents with Positive Assumptions

Parents are your friends. They want to partner with you. They want to see their child succeed more than anything else. Parent conferences might be an opportunity for you to surface your beliefs about parents and reflect on them, but when you engage with parents, even if you hold some doubts about them, put those aside. Welcome every parent as your strongest ally in working with your student (their child).

2. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

What is your goal or objective for the time you have with parents? What exactly do you want to communicate? What would you like the outcome of this meeting to be?

Here's an example: My goal in Maria's conference is for her mom to see the growth she's made in writing this fall and to determine some ways that she can be more organized. I also want to hear her mom's perspective on the social challenges she's dealing with.

Then prepare your materials. Have notes, tests, and work samples, but plan exactly what you want to share. Don't just sit down with parents and open a massive folder bursting with student work. Put Post-It notes on the items you want to share, select the best examples of the growth, and jot down a few notes.

3. Be Solution-Oriented

Be specific when asking for change. Telling a parent, "He's distracted a lot," is useless. What is the parent (who isn't sitting next to her child all day) supposed to do with that piece of information? How can she help her child or the teacher?

Whatever support you ask from a parent needs to be something that is within her sphere of influence. Asking a parent: "Can you talk to him about being more focused?" is possible, and parents can talk and talk, but the results might be limited.

A teacher could say: "I'm concerned because your son is often distracted during independent work in my class. Here's what I'm doing to try to help him...Do you see this behavior at home ever? Do you have any other ideas for things I could try? Can you think of anything you might be able to do?"

Always convey a growth mindset. All behaviors can change given the right conditions. If you want to see changes and have concerns about a student, be prepared to offer specific, actionable solutions.

4. Take the Opportunity to Learn

What could you ask parents that might help you better support your student? What would you like to know? If this is the first time you're sitting down with parents, it's a great opportunity to hear their perspective on their child's school experience so far, on what their child likes to do outside of school, on the questions and concerns they have about their child, and so on. So what do you want to ask?

5. Show that You Care

For parents, conferences can be terrifying or wonderful. As a parent, I have sat across from teachers whose feelings I couldn't identify -- I actually questioned whether or not they cared about my son as a human being and as a student. I have also sat across from teachers who I wanted to jump up and hug -- they so clearly cared about my boy.

Don't underestimate the power of the positive, and lead with it. Be specific in the positive data you share -- tell an anecdote or show a piece of work. Make sure you truly feel this positivity -- we can all sniff out empty praise. There is always, always something positive and praise-worthy about every single child. It's your job to find it and share that data with parents.

Happy conferencing!

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The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

Parent-teacher-student conferences are tomorrow and Friday. There's a vibe in the air, no doubt about it. You can feel it and if you could see the vibe it would look like plague of locusts.

In my classes today I went around and asked each of them what they'd like for me to say to their parents.

What would you like me to say to your parents about you? That's a classic calling of their bluffs. I was really trying to be funny ... I've got to state the facts, facts, facts tomorrow and Friday ... praise and concerns, I said ... but they were so stunned that no one came up with anything for a long time.

Dexter, smiling as if he had just been tossed the wiggly chicken, finally said for me to tell his parents that he's still sleeping in class a lot!

He has. For the last month. I finally poured cold water down the back of his neck this week while he was dreaming about algebra. He took it like a man. He really did, waking up with everybody laughing and pointing at him. He said he was sorry. But his in-class comas are getting old and distracting to his mates who want to give Georgia history a try. All of your other teachers are tired of it, too. So I told Dexter, with a wink, that your parents already know. Believe me. Your parents know.

Dexter giggled for a while ... but it was a nervous giggle that morphed into an expression of wide-awake silent horror. The kind of expression that convinced me of something: that when Dexter gets home this afternoon he knows he's got a whole lot of pre-conference campaigning to do.

Marie's picture

Excellent article, Elena! Thanks for some good input, reminders and tips!
I just wanted to add that another thing which could help parent-teacher conferences is building a relationship with parents before the actual conference. When I first started teaching, my mentor encouraged me to make positive phone calls home right at the beginning of the year. I kept a notebook with each of my students' information sheets in it, and then documented phone calls on the back of these, trying to call about 3-5 parents a day. I would introduce myself, tell them I was -----'s French teacher, and either praise something about the child, or just tell them that I was looking forward to a good year and ask them if they had any input or advice for me concerning their child. Parents were surprised and pleased to hear from me, and this prior contact before the conferences put both parties at ease during the actual meeting. Like Elena said, parents can be our strongest allies in helping educate their children, so building that positive relationship with them can be very effective. This is especially true if there are issues that come up during the year when that support is needed.

Monica Burns's picture
Monica Burns
Educator, Consultant, ADE , ClassTechTips.com
Blogger

I had parent teacher conferences last week and it was nice to know that I had information on behavior at my finger tips: http://wp.me/p2qsME-4k

Marcy Prager's picture
Marcy Prager
Retired Teacher, Substitute Teacher, Brookline, MA

Elena,
Your article is thorough and contains useful information! I always found that whatever information I needed to impart about a child, (both strengths and weaknesses), as long as I had specific materials to show the parents backing up my comments, my information was heard. Notebooks - Science Notebooks, Reading Notebooks, Writing Journals, also showed the progress the child was making when I showed the parents their early September work compared with their November work. It is really important to have the most important and "scary" conferences before the others. There are some conferences that need to be had before conferences even start. No parents like to be "surprised" by information that you need to tell them about their child. Weekly or bi-weekly conferences might be necessary to quell a parents' concerns and work as a team to help the child.

Erin Fox's picture
Erin Fox
UNCW Graduate Student. Elementary Teacher

Thanks for the great article Elena! I went into Grad School right after my Undergrad so the only taste I have had so far is my student teaching but come August I will finally begin my teaching career and it is aticles like this that give me confidence and a sense of guidance for my upcoming first year of teaching.

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