For most high school teachers this year, the sight of black squares filling a Zoom screen has been as familiar as it has been draining. There are legitimate reasons why teenagers tend to leave their cameras off and remain silent during virtual or hybrid learning, but whatever the reasons, without in-person interactions, cultivating relationships and a classroom culture has become increasingly difficult. One solution that I’ve tried, one-on-one conferences, has helped me combat this and build comfortable, academic, and trusting relationships with students.
I implemented individual writing conferences last year before the pandemic when I realized I wasn’t reaching all of my students effectively. At my school, we offer tutoring all year long, providing time before or after school or during lunch for students to meet with teachers to review work and ask questions. This really helped my students who were struggling, but the ones who tended to write on or beyond grade level were not progressing as much in their writing. So before spring break, I switched from an hour of groups of students coming and going as they wanted to setting up five-minute slots for one-on-one conferences with every student.
These conversations showed me that some students who rarely asked for help had had misunderstandings on our content for months despite class reteaches. The talks alleviated these misunderstandings, boosted students’ confidence, and reduced their anxieties. And I was able to talk privately with students who were normally so quiet that I barely heard a few words all year.
This year the conferences have had the added and now crucial benefit of allowing me to talk with all of my students, see their faces, and hear their concerns. One-on-one conferences have been a great tool for developing a rapport with students this year—one told me the conferences “allow for teachers and students to have a more personal relationship with one another even with the challenges of a virtual setting.”
Keeping Conferences Short and Productive
In an ideal world, we would have as long as we want to talk with each student, but in my experience the effective length of a conference for both student and teacher is about five minutes. To facilitate a short but productive conference, connect it to an assignment, skill, or specific content within your course. Have students reflect beforehand on their areas of strength and struggle and their goal for improving in order to guide the discussion.
As Grant Wiggins has written, effective feedback “requires that a person has a goal, takes action to achieve the goal, and receives goal-related information about his or her actions.” Students’ goals allow you to tailor your feedback in the conference to what best suits each student.
In order to keep conferences to time, it’s important that you start each one by laying out the structure for students. This reduces interruptions and helps students to settle into the conference. Here’s my structure, which you can adjust to what best fits your needs, context, and content:
- Greet your student; with virtual students, ask for their cameras to be turned on.
- Explain how the conference will go.
- Ask students how they felt about the relevant assignment or goal. Be sure to validate how they felt before you move on to the next step.
- Share your main thoughts on the work or skill. Try to consolidate your thoughts to three key points, starting with positive feedback.
- Ask them for any questions or clarifications they may have.
- Optional, but recommended: End by asking for feedback on the process, to be completed by the student independently outside of the conference.
Managing Large Numbers of Conferences
One of the challenges that often deters secondary teachers from integrating one-on-one conferences into their practice is the large number of students each teacher is responsible for, since we can have hundreds of students.
I teach 125 students, so conferences of five minutes each could take me almost 10 and a half hours. I’ve tried two solutions: Plan lessons the week of conferences that students can complete independently, to free up class time each day for conferences, or convert tutoring times for two weeks into conference slots. Both of these work well.
Maintaining Motivation to Conference
Teachers sometimes feel overwhelmed with suggestions on how to improve our practice. We can all think of forgotten projects or resources that we’ve abandoned and left un-updated since October. You may be tempted to put conferences in that category, but I firmly believe this practice is worth the time I’ve invested in it.
So how can we maintain the motivation to prioritize conferences? One idea I’ve tried is to connect conferences to major assignments. Conferences are flexible and geared toward student growth, so you can use them to discuss any assignment. When I have focused on a major assignment, conferences have improved students’ understanding, turn-in rates, and overall scores, saving me work later on when I might otherwise be chasing kids for work to get them passing.
Another thing that keeps me motivated is asking students for feedback on the process after each conference. Last year, I had students write open-ended feedback on the conference; this year, I have had them answer two questions on a Google Form. Either way, reading about their joy at learning something new, feeling comfortable, and gaining confidence made the effort of conferences well worthwhile.
So much of teaching has changed this year, but one-on-one conferences have allowed me to regain one of the most important aspects of teaching: relationships with my students.