George Lucas Educational Foundation
Family Engagement

Two Kinds of Parent-Teacher Conferences

Whether conferences are planned or spontaneous, a preexisting dialogue with parents and readiness to praise student strengths can open the door to mutually supporting student improvement.
October 5, 2015
Two adult women are sitting in a building, facing each other. One woman is laughing.
Photo credit: COD Newsroom via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

We just celebrated open house night at our high school and, as usual, the principal announced that this night was not a night to chat with parents about how their students were doing in our classes. We were supposed to describe our course and provide a syllabus for the visiting parents.

Sure, parents want to know about what their child is learning, but the real question they all have is, "How is my Humberto doing in your class?" So, what do I tell the parent or guardian? "Sorry, I can't talk about Humberto now, come back later?" Rather than do that, I made a compromise. As I described the class goals, I told the parents a bit about their child's successes in my class and explained how they could help their child have more success at home. Voilà! Mini-parent conferences.

A Strategic Approach

Actually, there are only two types of parent-teacher conferences: those that you're prepared for and the surprise conferences that you're not prepared for. Fortunately, I was prepared for the mini-parent conferences at the open house because I had personally invited the parents of struggling students to come. In general, I have found that elementary teachers do a much better job than secondary teachers of scheduling and holding regular parent conferences for all students.

The truth is that most secondary parent conferences are scheduled to find behavior solutions that will help a student succeed (a nice way of saying "fix a problem that is causing the teacher considerable frustration"). Most secondary parent conferences are in fact an opportunity for the teacher to show the parents exactly what their child is or is not doing in class, and to get parent and student commitments for remedying the situation.

I'm not condoning this practice -- it is simply the traditional way that things happen. My feeling, though, is that if a parent doesn't already know how his or her child is performing in our classes when we schedule a conference, then we've missed valuable opportunities. For example, one of the parents that I invited to come to the open house has a son who is a football player. At the beginning of school, he was causing such a problem in my class that I could not teach over his loud conversations with his friends. Normal discipline measures did not work. I picked up the most powerful tool, the telephone, and spoke to his mother. She said she would deal with it, and he was better for a while. She would not have wanted me to spring that information on her at the open house.

Working Closely with Parents

Successful parent conferences are opportunities to further develop a cooperative bond with the parent that we started with phone calls, email, or texts about the good things and areas of improvement for their child. The best use of our conference time is to synergistically brainstorm with parents on how we can move Humberto to higher achievement and learning, set goals, and create an action plan for both parent and teacher. Parents can get the grades online, print out attendance, and read your syllabus in advance so that you can spend this valuable face-to-face time creating a strong partnership instead.

This process can be strange for parents, because they expect you to just tell them what Humberto and they should be doing. To assure a good conference, you might want to spend a few minutes and brainstorm some ideas by yourself beforehand so that you can be ready to prime the pump a bit if the parent does not have any ideas. Meaningful and productive conversations can be developed with a few well-chosen questions such as:

  • What successes have you had with motivating Humberto at home?
  • How have you been able to connect Humberto's interests with reading?
  • What strategies work best with Humberto to encourage him to complete tasks?
  • When have you found is the best study time for Humberto?

I was very pleased with the results of my open house mini-parent conferences. I got to meet the parents of the well-behaved students and inspire the parents of students who are developing. I especially enjoyed meeting for the first time the parent of the football player who had behavioral issues at the beginning of the school year. You see, after my initial conversations with this wonderful parent, I was motivated to do more. Because of that conversation with her, I took a chance that I might not have taken otherwise and I made this young man a dialogue trainer in my class.

Miracle of miracles: The student took it to heart, and he trained all of the other students to do the dialogues. This only made his behavior even better in class. When she showed up at the open house, she gave me a big hug and said, "My son likes your class! I wish more teachers would encourage my son like you did!" We even had to dry our eyes a bit afterward. That was a great parent conference.

What successes have you had with planned and unplanned parent conferences? Please share in the comments section below.

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