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Six Tips for Planning Productive Parent Conferences

By Alycia Zimmerman on March 13, 2013
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

Even with hundreds of parent-teacher conferences under my belt, I still find the days leading up to conferences extra harried. Just the thought of meeting with 28 families in one evening exhausts me. How do I survive parent-teacher conferences? Plenty of sugar, caffeine, lip balm, and advance planning. Here are some of my hard-earned tips. What’s your parent-teacher conference survival plan?


Before the Conference Day

Tip 1: Get Techie With Conference Scheduling

Rather than facing an onslaught of parents at once, I ask my students’ families to sign up for appointment times throughout the designated day. In the past, I used to send home a tear-off letter requesting that parents sign up for their preferred time slots, and then I cobbled together a schedule and sent confirmation letters back to each individual family. I am so thrilled to say that an amazing website has streamlined that entire drawn-out process, and I am never looking back!

VolunteerSpot is a simple-to-use, free web service that allows you to create a “volunteer calendar” (really a conference appointment calendar for us teachers). You simply email the link to your conference calendar to parents, and they sign up for the available time slot they want. Parents don’t need to register with the website to book a conference time; they simply add their name and email address. You can see who signed up for each time slot, and the website sends automated email reminders to the parents the day before conferences. After setting up the initial calendar (this takes about 15 minutes), the rest of the process is truly effortless for us.

VolunteerSpot makes parent-teacher conference scheduling so much easier!

Tip 2: Stock Up on Cookies and Pens

My local supermarket seems to alternate between Keebler and Nabisco cookies on super sale, and I stockpile several packages the week before conferences. When I set up for parent conferences, we sit at a round table in my classroom. I put a cheerful placemat at the center of the table, with a heaping plateful of cookies that I refresh throughout the day. (One of my colleagues brings in a box of coffee for parents in her classroom, which is always a hit.) Welcoming parents with a sweet treat, even if they don’t partake, helps to break the ice and lighten things up. And some parents, after a full day of work, appreciate the hospitality and bit of sugar. Frankly, I am happy to have a sweet pick-me-up on hand to nibble on in between conferences, too!


Tip 3: “Dear Mom” & “Dear Son” Letter Writing

Prior to conferences, my students write a letter to their parents to be delivered at their conference. I ask them to share their academic accomplishments so far this year, what they want to become even better at, challenges they’ve faced, their favorite school experiences, and anything else they want their parents to know about them as students. The parents enjoy hearing their children’s perspectives about their academic progress, and I find that the kids are usually brutally honest and spot-on. Their words are also a useful starting point for our conference. After the conference, I ask the parents to write a letter back to their child, which we leave in their mailboxes for them to find the following day.

Download my "State of the Student Address Letter" template.


On Conference Day

Tip 4: Shh, Just Listen!

Susan, the wise-woman literacy coach at my school, always reminds us that the most important thing we teachers can do at conferences is to be great listeners. She points out that parents are an amazing resource for learning important information about our students, and we teachers have to stop talking if we hope to benefit from this information. This also takes some of the pressure off of me — it means I don’t need ten minutes of anecdotes and data to share about each of my students!


Tip 5: Tick-Tock . . . Use a Timer and Warn the Parents

Prior to conferences, I send home a letter explaining to my students’ families about the schedule and requisite time constraints for conferences. I ask — make that beg — parents to arrive on time for their scheduled conferences. And I let families know that I will have a stop watch with me during our meeting because once I get on a roll talking about my students, I totally lose track of time. Duly warned, parents tend to understand about the stopwatch and the time crunch. I find that when I share my honest frustration with the time constraints, the parents also pitch in to keep me on schedule, respecting the time limits out of sympathy for my sanity.


Tip 6: Conferences as a “To Be Continued” Installment

Yes, time is short and I feel frantic, but it helps when I remember that this is an ongoing dialogue, not a one-shot deal. With this in mind, I use the conference as both outreach and to start (or continue) productive conversations with families. I feel a lot less stressed about the time constraints when I take this “formative” rather than “summative” approach. Towards the end of the conference, I also remind the family that this is just one of many chances to communicate meaningful information about their child. I generally end with, “I look forward to continuing this discussion about your child’s progress. Feel free to reach out at any time to talk more!”


Even More Conference Tips!

Download this free resource pack from Scholastic's Printables packed with suggestions, templates, and forms for parent-teacher conferences and other parent forums.

Check out this collection of tips from teachers in this Instructor Magazine article.

Are you thinking about letting your students take the lead and co-conduct their parent-teacher conferences? Angela Bunyi blogged about student-led conferences last year, and it opened my eyes to a new way.

I've definitely adopted Beth Newingham's suggestion to spruce up bulletin boards and create interactive displays of the students' work for parents waiting for conferences to begin.

While writing report card comments, be sure to check out Genia Connell's oh-so-generous "CliffsNotes" to writing report cards. Genia really breaks it down and shows how it is done!


What are your parent-teacher conference survival tips? Do you invite students to attend conferences with their parents? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below!

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Comments (2)

Very practical tips! I like the letter-writing idea.

Thanks, Debbie. I think my students enjoyed writing their letters even more than the parents liked receiving them. It gave the kids a "voice" during the conference, even when they weren't there.

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