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Using Student-Led Parent-Teacher Conferences to Build Relationships

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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Quite a few readers responded to my blog entry "In the Loop: The Payoff for Parent-Teacher Conferences." As winter approaches, the next round of conferences is just around the corner. I want to address some of your general questions and comments, and, hopefully, this will help with upcoming planning. For those who don't conference, consider building conferences into your calendar next year.

What is the difference between a conference and a portfolio folder? The only difference is that the work is shared at school, not at home. Granted, with a conference at school, parents are forced to look at their child's work; but because they care about their child's successes, they should be doing this at home anyway.

Yes, if a conference is just looking at a folder of work, it is a missed opportunity. A powerful student-led parent-teacher conference focuses on student learning goals we can set by examining the student's work. This is an active event in which the learner and those responsible for supporting her education identify her strengths and areas of growth and make plans to address these areas. Unfortunately, parents often do not know how to support their children in school, particularly if they were unsuccessful in their own schooling. The conference is one tool to help parents support their child's success.

Readers also commented on how to encourage more parents to attend these types of conferences. Because many parents, even at the elementary school level, often take a passive role in their child's schooling, what can a teacher do to make conferences more interesting so parents will want to attend?

One solution is to pair conferences up with something else going on that evening that may interest parents -- perhaps a concert or dance. Parents may be in the neighborhood to drop their child off, and this may make it more convenient for them.

At Envision Schools, we put aside an entire week of minimum days, which gives plenty of time and sets the priority for the school community. The incentive we use is that we hand out report cards, rather than mail them. If you don't attend a conference, you will not receive a report card. Each adviser follows up with each parent until they attend. Currently, 95 percent of our parents participate.

As students get older, especially as they begin high school, they yearn for a sense of independence and maturity. In this struggle, I find there is often a disconnect between students and their parents in regard to school performance. Because kids and parents don't often talk about school, we think parent-teacher conferences are imperative. By requiring this interaction, we are telling parents it is OK to get involved with their teenager's high school education. For students, we give them some cover; they really do want their parents involved.

Several readers addressed the issue of time management when teaching a large number of students. Those teaching 100 kids or more will have to get creative. Our teachers have responsibility for holding only 20-30 conferences. We believe that in order to achieve better results, we need to redesign secondary schools in order to foster these types of interactions.

I hope some of these ideas will support you in planning powerful conferences for your students this spring. Please post comments about your successes and challenges with student-led parent-teacher conferences.

Comments (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Abraham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have worked at schools that had traditional parent teacher conferences and ones that required the presence of the student; the latter were interesting, often more productive, having an effect similar to cutting out the middle man. However, I've never worked at a school that encouraged meeting parents at their own homes. I'd be curious to hear more about how that seemed to effect things--from your article, it sounds like it was a positive policy.

Yolanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently working in a grade 7 & 8 middle school in Charlottesville, VA. In my nine years of teaching special education, I have taught at every level mostly in rural public schools. Our parent-teacher conferences are always scheduled in the evenings usually twice a year and I ask students to attend with their parents (I usually give some sort of incentive to student). Attendance is usually greater at the beginning of the school year when parents want to meet their child's "new" teacher. I have found that participation is better at the elementary level. For the last five years, I have worked at the middle school level and I have found it most difficult to get parents to come in for conferences even when requested to do so. Since most conferences are scheduled by teachers when students are not doing well, parents are often reluctant to show. As for student led conferences, I encourage my students to participate in the conference by asking questions and having them explain to parents what we have been doing in class. I don't think it would necessarily be viewed as student led but I like that idea. I have made home visits but that was when I taught in the county where I lived and pretty much knew most families. Our school is working to improve community relations to increase parent participation and support of school activities. At this point, I don't think many teachers would be open to the idea of home visits. I like the suggestion to pair the conference with some other event to encourage more parents to attend.

Debbie Housel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that pairing the conferences with some other event is a good way to draw parents in. I know of a couple of schools that have an ice cream social during their parent teacher time in the fall. This doesn't provide a lot of time for extended conferencing, but does provide time for a short meeting.

Alicia Young's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like your idea of paring parent-teacher conferences with another school event going on at the same time. I never thought of that before. Because I teach in a low-income school district, a lot of parents like to attend events where dinner is served. It is unfortunate, but anytime dinner is served at a school-sponsored event, lots of parents show up.

Tricia Patterson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great idea to host parent-teacher conferences with another event such as an ice cream social or even a student art exhibit! I have heard of student-led conferences and my 5th grade team discussed utilizing this type of conference. I kept students writings, portfolio, and reading log or Literature Circle journal to discuss with the parents. However, I don't feel it was totally student-led! The students were very quiet and the parents and I did most of the talking. I do believe it will get the parents more involved!

Rebecca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have facilitated student conferences in two ways. For seven years, I led the conferences and discussed the students' progress with the parents. For the past two years, I have changed my ways and now facilitate the conference with the student leading the conference. It has been wonderful. Before the conference, each student and I discuss all of his/her grades. We talk about how the grades came to be and also discuss ways to improve or maintain high grades. The student sets a few goals for the next trimester and then fills out a self evaluation form to discuss with his/her parent. I have found thesestudent-led conferences to be wonderful. The parents are always extremely impressed with how professional and well informed their child is about their grades. This way of conferencing really raises our expectations of our students. It involves them and makes their successes meaningful. I will continue to use this style of conferencing in the future. Try it!

Megan 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for sharing how you create a student-led conference. I just completed conferences and was left with the feeling that I was talking at the parents rather than with them. I have had a hard time garnering true parent participation due to many variables (time, cultural customs, personal educational experience, etc.) however, I feel if they saw how involved their student was it would encourage the parents to support them more! I have also seen how powerful goal setting for students can be and using this opportunity to reflect and "analyze" seems like a natural next step.
I wonder what grade level you teach and what the self evaluation form includes?
Thank you for your ideas!

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