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The following approach to structuring parent conferences has been effective for me. I meet with parents for 30 minute conferences twice each school year.
On Open House night I put out blank sign-up sheets for parent conferences. I encourage parents to make appointments while they’re visiting. This cuts down on phone calls I need to make to schedule appointments. I send home copies of partially completed sign-up sheets for parents who weren’t at Open House. Seeing the lists encourages parents to sign up. Every year I have to make three or four phone calls to schedule appointments.
Organize in Advance
I prepare conference forms, which I write myself. On the parent conference form I have spaces to record assessment results, a record of attendance, and a short blurb about social and emotional growth, as well as space at the bottom for additional notes. I complete this form for each student and make copies for parents to take home. I speak from the form so I stay focused on the facts. As a rule I take notes during a conference only if a parent asks something specific of me. Otherwise, I do my note-taking between conferences. I’ve found that note-taking can make parents nervous.
This form is helpful for parents, especially when only one parent can be present. It also helps me give the same information to both divorced parents when I have separate conferences.
On Conference Day
I have number lines, 100 charts, alphabets, and booklists available for parents to take home to assist with homework. I also have on hand student work samples, texts, and folders to refer to as needed. I put chairs in the hall so parents will have a place to sit while they wait. There are fresh bulletin boards to entertain them, as well as a three-ring binder full of stories students have written.
Informal Meeting Spot
I meet with parents at a round table, rather than across a desk (actually I don’t have a desk) because it sets a friendly, open tone. Some parents had negative experiences when they were students; for other parents English is not their first language. So I’m sensitive to the possibility that parents may feel nervous about meeting with me to discuss their child’s progress. I shake hands with parents as I greet them and maintain eye contact throughout the conference. The more I smile and seem relaxed, the more parents relax.
First Ask, Then Tell
I begin a conference with small talk about their child. Every student has relative strengths and I bring up strengths first. Then I ask parents if they have any questions. Parents may come to a conference with an agenda, so I address their questions and concerns proactively. Even when parents don’t have questions, I let them know they can ask questions at any time. One of my goals is to make sure their questions are answered.
Share the Facts
After a few minutes, as parents feel relaxed and comfortable, I discuss assessment results in the context of goals students typically achieve. I tell parents that students grow a lot and make significant academic progress during a school year as I refer to the facts. I try to stay on message and avoid talking about my impressions.
Tell the Truth
It’s important to tell parents the truth, directly and diplomatically. I speak slowly, clearly, and directly, and try to be sensitive to their feelings. Parents of younger children may have difficulty hearing what their child’s teacher is saying. This may be the first time they have heard the truth, so I convey little bits of truth in ways parents can receive them. This can be tricky, especially when a student has a disability or a pronounced area of weakness.
Parents may ask for help with parenting, medical, or emotional/behavioral issues. When parents bring up topics beyond teaching and learning that I feel unqualified to answer, I explain I’m not an expert in that area, but I’d be happy to refer them to someone else. It’s important to know the names of specialists and resources in your school and district in case parents ask for additional help.
At the end of the conference, I summarize our meeting in two or three sentences. Parents may need to hear a message more than once, so a summary is useful. I thank them for coming to their child’s conference and again shake their hands as I walk them to the door.
I take notes between conferences. When a parent makes a request, I follow up and get back to the parent in a timely manner. Prompt follow-up builds credibility and goodwill with parents. If anything remotely controversial was said, I report this to appropriate school personnel the following day.