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What works in Parent-Teacher Conferences?

Elana Leoni Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer


I recently read a blog post on on a parent's perspective about what's working in parent-teacher conferences.

Here's an excerpt: [Read more]

There are plenty of lists of what parents should do in a parent teacher conference, so here’s my list to teachers of what works and what doesn’t for me, as the parent participant in these conferences:

* The actual progress reports. While I realize that teachers are not responsible for the progress report categories and the like, I ask that a teacher understands that there are way too many categories for me to process in the average 15 minutes that we have during a conference. A lot of time is spent just going over the categories. Can the progress reports go home even a day prior to the conference so that I have a chance to digest it all?
* Don’t invite my student. I know this goes against a previous Parentella post, but what I’ve experienced from the times my own child has participated is that the words they take in are not necessarily a full understanding of what’s being said. I had one parent teacher conference in particular where the teacher inappropriately spent a large amount of time talking about her own daughter, and my daughter started exhibiting the behaviors of her teacher’s daughter. It took me a month to get her back on track. However, assuming that a teacher isn’t inappropriate, I want to figure out how to frame my own discussion with my child about her progress, not spend a lot of time re-framing the bits and pieces that my child misinterpreted during the conference.
* Back up your criticisms with ideas. I once had a very frustrating talk with one teacher where I know my child is capable, couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t living up to her abilities, and the only feedback the teacher had was, “she needs to do better.” I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that. Another time, I asked a teacher for online resources we could use at home to help my daughter’s progress in a certain area, and she had no ideas. It does me no good to simply hear that my daughter’s not doing well at something, but specific information and specific resources can help me to help her.
* Don’t wait for a conference if a child is really struggling. This experience hasn’t happened to me personally, but I’ve heard from many parents who were truly shocked when they came into the conference and learned their child was in danger of failing. Conferences should be about a student’s overall progress, but if there has been no progress in a certain area, parents should be notified sooner rather than later.
* It’s not your personal time. I always try to come in with empathy, and I realize that parent-teacher conference time is busy for the teachers, but it is part of the job. I don’t want to hear the teacher complain that there’s no time, or how tired they are. This is our limited time to talk about what’s going well and where my child isn’t doing so well. Let’s stick to the subject at hand.
* Think before-hand about how my child’s strengths can help their weaknesses. To me, the time we spend talking about what my daughter does well is not wasted. Sometimes, we can take some of those good skills and use them to guide her in other subjects. A visual learner, for example, could use those visualizations to help understand a mathematic equation. Someone who is quick to memorize lyrics could be taught to use those memorization skills in other areas.
* Never appear to have written my child off. My 9-year-old is particularly adept at empathy. She can tell when someone is rooting for her, and when someone isn’t. She’s apt to stop trying if she thinks she’s never going to be able to do it. I’m apt to think less of a teacher if they appear to not believe in my child’s ability. I’m sure there are many labels someone can put on me as a parent for feeling that way, but I do believe that given the right tools, any child is capable. Please go into every conference prepared to offer guidance in how all of our children can do their very best.

What does everyone else think? What are your do's and don'ts with parent-teacher conferences?

Comments (17)

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Founder & CEO of VolunteerSpot (

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

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Conferences are so short - as a parent, I appreciate it when the teacher is prepared with examples of my daughter's work - both demonstrating her strengths and areas of improvement. When I have concerns, I bring work examples with me to the conference and have a list of questions ready so the conversation focuses on specifics.

The website I founded, VolunteerSpot ( has a free eBook for parent-teacher conferences including tips (p.9) for teachers and parents. Our free and easy online sign up tool is terrific as a parent-teacher conference scheduler. Any teacher can launch a conference schedule within minutes and teachers report spots filling up within 24 hours of inviting parents! That's a huge improvement over sending sign up sheets via backpack pony express. The best part is, VolunteerSpot sends automated reminders helping parents keep their commitments so they're on time for their conferences.

Another terrific resource is The K5. See their video helping parents prepare for parent-teacher conferences:

High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Student-Led Conferences?

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I've trialled the idea of student-led conferences in Years 7 - 9. I'm sure it would work well in Years 4-6, as well. The idea is an American one originally, I believe, but we adopted it because we wanted students to be more accountable for their learning. It's great when you have a motivated student showing of heaps and heaps of learning activities, explaining what they were pleased with, how they can improve and so on.

Not sure it's appropriate in the higher year groups. My advice to teachers in traditional parent-teacher conferences is always to be honest, but constructive. Don't sugarcoat things; if a child is not performing, say so. Parents can be confused if teachers make excuses for their child. But also offer ideas for what can be done. Make them clear, constructive ideas, rather than 'so and so should try harder.'

Founder & CEO of VolunteerSpot (

Love Student-Led/student-included conferences

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In my school, students participate in conferences starting in the 5th grade. I'd love to see student led conferences starting as young as third or fourth. The process mirrors best practices for performance management that I helped corporations adopt in my years as a management consultant and builds ownership and personal responsibility for academic performance. It can be as simple as a child asking, "What specific things did I do well?" "What specific things can I improve?" and then setting three performance goals (with the teachers help) -- two to build on a strength and one to address an area needing improvement.

Instructional Leader

Be Honest

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I've always tried to sugar coat anything I have to say to parents that might be negative. But now that I am a parent, I really want to know what's going on with my kid and how I can help. So, now I try to be really honest, but in a caring way.

Well parent–teacher

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Well parent–teacher conference is a time when important people in a student's life can talk about how that student is doing in school. It's a chance for you to ask questions about the class or your child's progress. It is also a time for you and the teacher to work together as a team to discuss ways you both can help your son or daughter.
Nick from Conference Centre Peterborough

Video Editor at Edutopia

One thing I did the entire

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One thing I did the entire time my kids were in school was to get involved at the school site. This could mean helping in the classroom or going to meetings at night (like PTA or school site meetings). In this way I could build relationships with teachers, staff and administrators as well as demonstrate my commitment to the quality of our school. I was always willing to do whatever work I was asked to do and was able to build a credibility that served me well when I made suggestions.
The other thing I strongly suggest for parent teacher conferences is to schedule your own in the spring. In California, where my kids went to school, conferences were only officially scheduled in the fall when teachers are just getting to know your children. Besides, a 15 minute conference, by nature, can't be very in depth. I would ask for another conference each spring and the request was never met with resistance. By that time in the school year, the teacher knew both my student and myself better, allowing us to discuss the year's progress and places for improvement in a much more knowledgeable and insightful way.

The Essential Conversation

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I was also very involved in my schools and felt that all the teachers I worked with saw me as an asset in their classroom. But...(you could feel that "but" coming couldn't you?) all my 18 years of never missing a conference with either child's teachers, it wasn't until I read The Essential Conversation by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot that I came to understand how necessary an element this tool can be in building a partnership between a parent and a teacher to help foster a child's strengths and interests while helping them overcome their weaknesses.

It was well after I was through the K-12 system that I came across this gem of a book. It was enlightening as to the lack of preparation paid to this important topic in teachers education. It seems like it should be a must read for them yet very few that I have mentioned it to have even heard of it. It's easy reading, light at times, and at one point brought me to tears when I thought of what an experience I missed in never having had the essential conversation.

Founder & CEO of VolunteerSpot (

Terrifc WSJ Article - Acing Parent-Teacher Conferences

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Thought Jeffery Zaslow did a terrific job of capturing the broader conversation and offering helpful tips for both parents and teachers.

(and I'm quoted - fun!)

"What Should Be A Partnership"

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Mr. Zaslow gave some good advise and made good points: focus on your child, discuss strategies, write out common goals...ask for follow-up.

One thing I would disagree with is the advise to ask teachers for data, not opinions. We need to discuss both! In a partnership between a professional educator and the person who should know the most about the child, the parent, opinions on how they learn best, what approaches have worked worked best in the past or at home, etc. are extremely important. Why repeat the use of approaches that a former teacher, or the parent, may have already seen as ineffective for the child? "Data-driven" decisions have some value but ALL decisions are ultimately based on opinion (our opinion decides what data we value).

With that in mind, in addition to both parents and teachers having empathy for each other, they must also value and be respectful of each others opinions.

It is too bad that these conferences continue to fail to reach the parents that are most in need of building this type of partnership. Until systemic changes occur across the country, we can't expect to see effective communication between teachers and parents on an equal opportunity basis, consistently. For teachers to recognize student strengths and assess their learning needs, the teachers need adequate training, adequate time with each student, and adequate structural support to develop partnerships with parents.

Americans don't want to face that fact, or don't care about offering equal opportunity to children

In underperforming districts, the traditional P-T conference structure is (I generalize here) ineffective and a waste of time for all involved parties. What is needed are the "guts" of an "essential conversation" based on the flexibility to approach the building of a trusting relationship according to the cultural rules of the parents and children to be brought in to the partnership. Dr. Ruby Payne's work is simple and usable when it comes to working with the culture of the poor (Working with parents: Building Relationships for Student Success).....that is just my opinion :o)

School Board member, parent of 2 public school students.

Victoria, I agree with what

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Victoria, I agree with what you are saying. I live in a rural district that has lots of backwoods poverty, run-down trailers, some drug use, lots of alcoholism. Still, the community seems to come out to see kids in our annual talent show, or other performances. Someone once told me that if you want parents to come out, have a raffle! :)

I'm not from around here -- I'm a city girl -- and I don't have much first-hand experience with that community so I'm not certain what kinds of cultural changes we would make to bring parents in as partners. I'd welcome any insight in that area.

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