George Lucas Educational Foundation

What works in Parent-Teacher Conferences?

What works in Parent-Teacher Conferences?

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Hello, 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?

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Victoria M. Young's picture

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)

Lisa J. Cooley's picture
Lisa J. Cooley
School Board member, parent of 2 public school students.

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.

Kelly Key's picture
Kelly Key
First grade teacher from Parker, Colorado

I'm thinking, who are these teachers??

Victoria M. Young's picture

Hi Lisa,

One of the points that Ruby Payne makes very strongly is that people that live in especially what they call "generational poverty" value, among other things, entertainment. That is why you see them coming out to fun events. Put yourself in their shoes (empathy), they don't generally believe they are going to be moving up the economic ladder and it is depressing if they give in to those thoughts, so they have fun whenever they can afford to do it. Now they may dream of moving up but in this generational poverty, deep down they understand that chances are slim. But it is entertaining to buy lottery tickets and dream momentarily.

So to tap into their world to get them involved, you do it in entertaining ways. Teachers can make informational video tapes (CD's) that are checked out and go home with the kids. They are more likely to get watched than a newsletter or website is to get read.

Another very admirable characteristic of those that have been raised and live in poverty is their generosity and camaraderie. When they do win the lottery, they give it away helping out friends. Your poverty stricken friends would do the same for you. They share knowing that the next time around, they may be the ones in need. When you tap into that, you get a positive chain reaction. For example, we ran a donkey basketball fundraisers for our seniors and I personally picked up the phone, spoke or left messages that if their family would like to enjoy a night out and help the senior class, they could do it for $20 a family. I also mentioned to tell their neighbors, friends, and other family members to join the fun and support the graduates. It was one of the rare times our gym was filled! Personal contact is powerful!

Teachers working within the culture of poverty need to understand that the structure of having parents come to the school to meet one-on-one is not comfortable for many of these parents (doesn't mean they don't care) and ii isn't productive when it is down right stressful. We shouldn't judge successful engagement by how many times they come through the's how many human interactions they have had that have helped them understand that children need a "collective advocacy" network to get them through schools and that they, together with the community, form that network of support for their child...they must feel hope.

It is very admirable that as a school board member you are seeking answers and understanding. Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty is quick and easy to read. It might be a good start. Ask at your library, it might already be there. Thank you again for caring. Your community will benefit because of your efforts.

Please, if you think I can help further, ask!

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