By Linda Kerschner
November brings cooler temperatures, fluttering leaves, early sunsets, Thanksgiving feasts, and parent-teacher conferences. Of course, you may have already met with parents, by their request or your invitation, but the November school calendar includes a specific day when you will spend a day (or maybe several days) meeting with parents.
English teachers are in great demand on this day. English teachers of juniors are particularly popular. My allotted 15 slots generally filled in record time, at least according to the administrative assistant who took parent calls to schedule this event. Parents don’t always realize that they can schedule an appointment with us on another day, perhaps a time that is even more convenient for them.
Obviously, parents take these days seriously, and for good reason. They want to find out, from the horse’s mouth, how their children are doing, above and beyond the numbers they can see on tests, quizzes, and papers. They want to hear that their children are wonderful and that they will be recruited by the colleges of their choice on full scholarships. More importantly, they want to hear that we, the teachers, recognize and appreciate their children’s special talents.
What can we do to make sure that the conferences live up to the parents’ expectations? More importantly, what can we do to make sure that these conferences benefit our students?
These meetings consist of three parts, and each deserves our careful attention to ensure a successful conference.
- Your welcome to parents begins outside your door. Pull a desk (or two) with a chair into the hallway so parents have a place to sit as they wait. Include a clipboard and pen so parents who do not have a conference can leave their contact information. It’s a nice touch to place copies of the books that your classes are reading so the parents have something to do as they wait for their appointments.
- By November, our classrooms are starting to take on a personality, and parent conference day is a good time to take stock of the message the room is sending. You probably won’t have time for a complete re-haul, but make sure that bulletin boards are neat and appropriate for the occasion, that papers are secure to protect student privacy, and that bookshelves are orderly. Students can help get the room ready for their parents’ arrival.
- Where will you and the parents sit during the conference? This decision sets the tone. Instead of sitting behind my desk, I prefer to group three or four student desks together. It sends the message that we are equal shareholders in the meeting, partners in the goal of student success.
- Prepare a folder for each conference. This step shows parents that you are organized, and it allows you to anticipate parent concerns. Include a printed copy of student grades, copies of current work, and records of student participation and attendance.
- To help parents gauge their children’s progress relative to the class, gather copies of successful student writing, remove any identifying features, and photocopy. Highlight specific features that demonstrate why these papers are successful. These examples allow parents to understand that there are criteria for grades, not just random and arbitrary decisions.
- Begin the conference on time. If even one conference runs over, every conference will be late, and a late start may set a negative tone. If your school makes announcements at the end of each session, you can use that message as a signal to escort the parent to the door. If it does not, keep an inconspicuous eye on the clock so you can gracefully end the conference on time, inviting parents to follow up if they have additional concerns or questions.
- Greet each parent with a smile.
- Your first question should be, “How can I help your child?” This question shows your concern and allows parents to quickly get to the reason they scheduled the appointment.
- Listen, really listen to what the parents are saying. Sometimes the subtext is more important that the actual words.
- Be specific and non-judgmental when you describe the student’s behavior. Instead of saying, “John’s assignments are always late,” tell the parent, “The last paper was due on Monday, October 16, but John turned in his essay on Monday, October 30.” The same goes for positive information. “Erin is a wonderful writer” doesn’t give the parent or the student any way of knowing what is successful, but “Erin gives specific examples with carefully selected vocabulary to persuade her readers” gives a clear picture of Erin’s strengths.
- Be honest when you answer parent questions, but be tactful. Keep in mind that you are talking about their child, and they want to know that you are interested in his or her well being.
- Take a moment to write down any pertinent information about the conference while it is still fresh in your mind.
- If you have offered to provide additional information, send it promptly. If you can’t give an answer in two days, at the very least send an email telling the parent that you are doing research and will get back to them when you find the answer to their question.
- Reach out to any parent who indicated she wanted to meet with you but could not schedule an appointment. This gesture will calm an irate parent by showing that you are available outside of parent/teacher conference day, and it will endear you to the parent who is seeking confirmation about her child’s success in your class.
- Write notes to yourself about what you want to do next year to ensure continued success.
Parent/teacher conferences are a bridge between us and parents. Successful conferences allow us to cement our relationship with parents. If we need to contact them about a problem in the future, the concern we have shown during these meetings will make them want to work with us toward our mutual goal: the success of their children.
Linda Kerschner worked as a technical writer for several years before becoming a full-time English teacher in the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District. She is currently retired and writing children’s books about Italian traditions. Christmas from the Heart should be ready for purchase by November 9. It’s about pizzelles as a present for Bella’s favorite teacher, and it follows the same pattern as the first two books: a story, recipes, traditions, vocabulary study, games, and a chance to write on their own.
Spot on! Keep it concrete–observable behaviors. And, if you have kept good records of conferences, goal setting, and other anecdotal evidence outside of scoring and assessment, share that too. Actually, sharing what you see and hear is often more valuable than scores…but speaking of data, make sure you know which tests your districts will be administering, when, and how the data is used in school. Some will want to know!
Thank you so much for outlining this! As a soon-to-be teacher, the idea of a parent-teacher conference is nerve-wreaking to me. You’re definitely right in saying that we need to make the parents feel comfortable and welcomed even before they enter our classroom. Sitting in student desks is an excellent idea because, as you said, it puts everyone on equal ground. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m above them just because I’m their child’s teacher; I want to work together to reach our common goal—making their child successful. I’m sure that many others share this sentiment. This was very insightful and I’ll definitely keep these in mind when my own parent-teacher meetings come around.
Linda, these suggestions are so practical and timely. I think your before, during, and after framework is especially helpful, and can make the whole conference experience more beneficial for everyone — parents, teachers, and students.
I never really focused on what parent-teacher meetings are like. My parents never really attended mine so it has never been an idea in my mind that I would have to deal with this one day when I become a teacher. All these points are very well made, they addressed concerns but also gave you a way to fix it. I especially loved how you said to tell the truth about the student but be tactful. Sometimes people forget that you can do both at the same time so it is nice thing to mention. Although this wasn’t a pressing concern that I had this really did help give me some sort of basis as to how to handle parent-teacher conferences in the future.
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