George Lucas Educational Foundation
Family Engagement

Making the Most of Parent-Teacher Conferences During Distance Learning

Anticipating caregivers’ questions can go a long way toward ensuring that these meetings are productive for everyone involved.

January 29, 2021
Drazen_ / iStock

Partnering with families is one of the most powerful ways to promote a sense of communal ownership in a child’s learning experience. How we partner with families has evolved as we experienced remote and/or hybrid instruction. Maybe we’ve met our students’ families through our email inboxes, or maybe there’s been the luxury of an in-person meeting at the school yard or in years past. Perhaps we’ve yet to meet them at all. Regardless, we can plan for connecting with families by anticipating some of the issues that have consistently surfaced throughout the past few months and, most important, highlighting some of the joyful spots that have peppered the students’ school experience thus far.

As you’re planning to meet with families, you may want to consider changing the traditional nomenclature of “parent-teacher conferences” to “caregiver-teacher conferences.” The use of the word caregiver is more inclusive.

6 Tips for Better Caregiver-Teacher Conferences

1. First contact is important. Start every meeting with a compliment or positive experience you’ve had with the child. This can come before you introduce yourself. For example, you might say, “Welcome! It’s so nice to see you. I love having Marco in my class! Did you know that every day, he shares a joke with the whole class in our community circle? It’s super-delightful and a powerful form of literacy.”

2. Let students speak for themselves. One way to support shared ownership of kids’ learning is for the child to lead a portion of the conversation and talk to their caregiver about some of their work. For example, they could choose one piece of work they are proud of and one piece of work that they feel they could still improve on. Devote class time before the conference to support the child in highlighting their best work. Help them identify challenges that prevented them from doing their best on their second piece of work.

3. Create a mini-agenda template that keeps the conference flowing. Often, caregiver conferences run on a tight schedule; for secondary teachers, they can be as short as eight minutes! Because it’s impossible to scrunch all the things we’d like to say within that time frame, pull the most important pieces out in declarative statements, and ensure that there is a space for caregivers to sign up for follow-up conversations to reduce the amount of time you spend interfacing via email. Here’s an example for a 10-minute conference:

  • Compliment about child and tiny teacher intro (two minutes).
  • Goals: In __ grade, two of the most important learning outcomes we work toward are…. (one minute).
  • Student-led commentary on two pieces of work: “proud of” and “could improve on” (three minutes).
  • Name resources that you’ve used to support the student; show caregiver resources that they can use to support the child at home (two minutes).
  • Caregiver question/comment and sign up for more talk time (two minutes).

4. Anticipate questions, issues, and problems that caregivers might raise during the meeting by surveying the community ahead of time. It’s likely that you will not have time to answer deep questions or attend to major issues during the conference. Administrators can send out a short survey when conferences are announced with a reminder a few days before the conferences are scheduled. (Since not everybody reads email, you may want to consider alternate ways to reach caregivers.)

Survey questions might include:

  • What parts of your child’s learning experience have been most challenging for you?
  • Do you have any specific content questions that you’d like more support with?
  • What parts of your child’s learning experience feel supportive and helpful?

Survey responses can be shared with the teaching community, and grade teams can design a “Frequently Asked Questions” page to be shared with caregivers at the end of the conference.

5. Create a go-to resource hub. This can be part of the FAQ document. The goal of caregiver-teacher conferences is to open lines of communication between families, students, and teachers to support students’ learning experiences in a communal effort. Caregivers will have questions, and they will want to support their child. Teachers can offer guidance when those questions surface, and they can also listen to caregivers when they offer guidance on how their children learn as well. The resource hub is developed after looking at some of the survey data. For example, a portion of the digital resource hub might look like this:

  • If your child often says, “I’m done!” and you’re not sure if they are in fact done, you can find out the status of all of their assignments on the Google Classroom classwork wall.
  • If you have no idea how your child’s doing in school, Google Classroom is a great place to visit to check out what your child is working on.
  • If your child often says they’re too exhausted to participate in live instruction toward the end of the day, offer regular bio breaks throughout the day to accommodate their physiological needs. (It’s OK if they miss a few minutes of class!) And if your child is truly exhibiting great distress by the end of the day, have them work asynchronously in the late afternoon.

This hub should also include links to all relevant material, such as your learning management system and asynchronous learning materials.

6. Work with your grade team to create these resources and develop a shared stance. Prior to conferences, make a plan for how you will address some common concerns that have popped up among the caregiver community. It’s hard to address kids’ exhaustion in appropriate ways when some teachers tell the caregivers that their child must log on to live instruction, while other teachers are saying that bio breaks are OK and that at times there will be asynchronous alternatives. These conversations are important, and they’re also a great opportunity for schools to build community and consensus about what expectations are priorities given the unique moment in time that all learners are experiencing. 

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