Vignette #6 – Grappling with how to make the parent-teacher conference a meaningful and useful means of sharing expectations for learning and behavior with parents, a middle school teacher considers strategies for making the most of this often-underutilized moment of connection.
As part of the “parent-teacher conference task force” that gathered together in previous years to find ways to make the conferences more accessible to the families in her school*, Sheila O’Connell continues to think about how to use this connective moment to its potential. For the parents who still have difficulty connecting with teachers on the designated nights, Sheila finds ways to reach them – via phone, email, and home visits. Through the varied ways with which she has executed the “parent-teacher” conference over the years, Sheila has realized a few key concepts that keep her thinking about the “agendas” that teachers and parents bring to this often loaded (and sometimes dreaded) meeting. At heart, she asserts that most parents come to the conference curious to know something about the teachers who interact with their children on a daily basis. Whether their kids talk about school openly at home or not, most parents want the chance to “know” the teacher, be assured that the teacher knows their child, and finally, that the teacher knows and listens to them as well. Sheila recognizes that this curiosity and hope provides an opening for teachers to clarify and make connections about expectations for learning and behavior in the classroom. While parents want and need detailed information regarding these expectations, Sheila wonders about ways to use the limited conference time to gather and exchange the key understandings that will best support the students’ learning and behavior throughout the year.
Sheila learns about a school where teachers prepare for their “back to school” night by creating videos of the information that they would otherwise present to parents that evening. By creating videos that share expectations for learning, previews of curriculum by subjects, classroom procedures, rules around classroom culture and behavior, the teachers “create a permanent record of classroom expectations, provide a format that can be quickly and easily updated throughout the year and can be viewed at parents’ leisure.”** Parents are asked to view these videos prior to the “back to school” night, thus presenting a “meet and greet” alternative that provides opportunity to build individual relationships – something that is harder to do in a presentation. While Sheila considers pitching this idea for her “back to school” night, she also wonders about creating similar videos in preparation for the parent-teacher conferences. With important information already digested about learning expectations and plans, Sheila considers how the short conference time could be used more effectively. With a context for what their children are learning and what is expected of them, Sheila suggests that a more nuanced and personal connection could be made. She loves the idea that a colleague shares about starting the conference by asking parents to share “the thing that they are most proud of about their child.” In fact, she thinks about how important this meeting is in terms of what she can learn about her students from the people who know them best. Sheila considers how she can take the pieces of personal information (the “stories” as Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot shares in The Essential Conversation) to have more productive conversations about how students are faring with what is expected of them in the classroom. Her hope is that the parent-teacher conference can be used as a way for parents and teachers to come together to share ideas about what will work best at home and at school to help students thrive.
*See Vignette #2 in INDICATOR III-C-2: Culturally Proficient Communication Indicator
- School’s videos aim to enhance parent-teacher communication – This short local news article highlights a school where fifth grade teachers create a series of videos for the parents to view in preparation for parent-teacher night.
- Compiled by The Harvard Family Research Project, this document blends useful hands-on advice in “Ideas for Before the Conferences” (send invitations, review student work, prepare thoughts and materials, send reminders, create a welcoming environment) with larger ideas to consider about parent-teacher conferences (the two-way conversation, emphasis on learning, and the opportunities and challenges presented). There are separate “tip sheets” for administrators, teachers, and parents.
- The Best Resources On Parent/Teacher Conferences – A collection of articles, blogs, and hand-outs about the parent-teacher conference. From format issues around the conference to an Education World article about student-led conferences, this website includes much of the current conversation around how to make parent-teacher conferences more effective and meaningful.
- Conferring with Parents (ROUND-UP) – Three elementary teachers share tips and reminders for what can work well during parent-teacher conferences.
- Parent-Teacher Conferences Without (or with Less) Stress – A teacher/parent offers succinct suggestions on how to keep parent-teacher conference stress free and productive. By setting clear expectations for the conference and sharing how you can be available for connection throughout the year, the conference can serve as a valuable tool for ongoing connection. The author has found that starting conferences by asking parents what they are most proud of about their child can help set a positive tone and teach her something valuable about her students.
- How Parent-Teacher Webinars Create Solutions To Education Problems – This short article outlines how webinars can serve as solutions to providing time/space for parent-teacher connections. The article offers suggestions about how to best utilize a webinar, including making sure to inform parents ahead of time about what will be discussed once they are “online” with teachers. In addition to extending possibilities for the parent-teacher conference, the webinars also could provide a format for teachers to explain such things as what their classes cover, the actual work that students are engaged in, and demonstrations of individual student work.