(Originally posted on IMLA blog, October 8, 2014)
It is no secret that many teachers dread Parent/Teacher Conferences, either from having to stay late after teaching for a full day, the anxiety and panic about talking with difficult parents about their students’ progress in your class, or somewhere in-between. Sadly there are teachers in our profession that look forward to Parent/Teacher Conferences because they know that few parents will show up and it will give them time to catch up on grading. We need to change our mindset and truly look at conferences as an opportunity to engage parents and assure them of our primary purpose—caring about their kids.
We all know that the best practice in communicating with parents is to contact them early with a positive message. You do not want your first contact to be informing them of misbehavior or poor academic performance. Likewise, you definitely don’t want your first contact with them to be at conferences.
Find a way to set a baseline for communication and let them know that you care about their students’ success, not just their misbehaviors. If you haven’t, it’s not the end of the world. You will just need to be mindful of how you approach the situation.
Yes, we notify parents at all levels—recorded messages from the office, website, reader board, teacher calendars, student agendas, etc. Don’t assume that they know about conferences. And perhaps more importantly, don’t let them assume that you don’t care whether they show up or not. Every year teachers say: “The parents I needed to talk to didn’t come.”
We act shocked that they didn’t come to Meet the Teacher or Back to School Night, and then they didn’t show up to conferences. If we really need to talk to them, let them know that we are looking forward to seeing them. If they choose not to show, that is on them. They can’t say we didn’t give them a personal invite.
Ask Their Names. Use Them.
Engaging with parents as team members with equal vested interest in students’ success is an important strategy. Introduce yourself. Shake their hand. Ask their name. It’s the personal connection that will help you enlist their help if you ever need it. As a general rule, I try to use first names as often as possible. When I first meet parents, either in person or via phone, I make every attempt to use their first name at least twice, if not three times. Showing you care about them as a person and not just a random parent helps them feel like they belong and that you value their input as parents. It is also more likely that they will give you the benefit of the doubt when they have concerns and approach you as a professional that wants to work with them, rather than an adversary they have to battle against.
Save the Grade
Chances are, parents have already seen the grade on the report they received when they walked through the door. We are not graders—assigning grades. We are teachers—teaching kids. Focus on the students and fostering a relationship focused on them. The rest will fall into place. Wait to talk about the letter grade, good or bad, until later in the conference (see below). Parents may bring it up immediately: “I see Suzie has an F. What is going on?” Do your best to deflect with respect until you can say the things you need to say (also see below). There is a time and a place in the conference to talk about the grade. Do your best to stick to your agenda, not the parents’.
Use Student Samples
Nothing is as powerful as showing the parents how their kids are doing in their own words. It takes leadership, time, and planning to effectively use student-led conferences as an entire school. However, every teacher can use student samples of work to share with parents the successes and struggles students are exhibiting in class. Something simple as a sample of their work in class or even a basic reflection sheet where students write a letter to their parent sharing the reason for their grade and their goals for the rest of the semester can be an eye opener for parents, particularly when students are honest about why they are struggling in class.
Gauge Your Emotions
Teaching is stressful! We know it. Unfortunately, sometimes, the parents don’t. You’ve taught all day, approaching your 12th hour in the building and you’re still sitting at a table handling difficult discussions. Your emotions will show if you aren’t mindful of how you are feeling. If you feel like you need a break emotionally, you probably do. The more tired you are, the less likely you are to catch yourself before you react negatively to a situation that may not normally get to you. Even if there is a line, you have to take care of yourself. Excuse yourself politely and assure them you will be right back.
Be conscientious of your body language and tone of voice. They can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Sit up. Lean in. Smile. Make eye contact. These simple gestures show parents that you are genuinely interested in spending the next five minutes with them talking about one of their favorite things—their student.
Be Mindful of Time
Open format conferences give parents the freedom and flexibility to visit with teachers without having to have an appointment. However, it is critical for teachers to recognize that parents at conferences are still under time constraints and we can control the pace of our own conferences. A parent that is neutral about what to expect from a conference will quickly become annoyed or frustrated if they have to wait in a line for 45 minutes before their turn to talk…and then they have to go into another line and wait again…and again…
Parent/Teacher conferences should never last more than five minutes. If you meet with a team partner, you may consider extending the time, but you should still limit the conference to no more than seven minutes. Any longer and you should schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss concerns or issues in depth.
The Five Minute Conference
Many people have scoffed at me when I tell them about effective five minute conferences. Truth is, I used to do them in three. Here is the basic format to making that time count.
First, tell them they have five minutes. If you warn them ahead of time, it makes it easier for them to pay attention to the line that is behind them as well. If you don’t start with the expectation, prepare to be held hostage by that one parent that needs individual therapy because there have never been so many issues with Johnny at school and it’s causing issues at home, etc. You give them the time constraint, and have modeled with the parents before them in line that you will hold to it, they will respect it. Remember, if they need more time, schedule a follow up meeting.
Next, use their name (see above) and thank them for coming. We tend to concentrate on the negatives and the parents that don’t care without giving credit to the ones that do. Showing genuine appreciation for the parents that do care enough about their students to come to conferences will not only help you build positive relationships, it will fill your bucket.
Then, use this three step recipe:
- Something you like/appreciate about their student. Find something positive to say…about EVERY student! If you can relate it to something non-academic, awesome. It shows that you know their student more than just as a body in a desk. If it is related to their performance in class, great. It gives them a preview that their child is doing well. If you aren’t sure what to say because their grade is so low or their behavior has been so rotten…find something. Even if the student is never prepared for class, but shows up on time every day. Use that… “I appreciate that Johnny is on time to class every day…”
- Something specific the student can improve upon. Education is about growth. It is part of our role to help students grow, not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well. Focus on the goal of improvement and not the letter grade attached to the report card. We all know that Suzie has the responsibility to complete and turn in her work, but don’t just say: “She has an F because she doesn’t turn anything in…” That places blame on Suzie and brings out the mama-bear in her mother. If Suzie needs to improve on not having missing assignments, say it. “I really need Suzie to work on turning her work in on time. It will help her be more successful in my class.” Stating what you need positively in clear terms will make it more likely that you will see improvement.
- Ask for help. If you clearly communicate areas for improvement, it makes perfect sense to ask the parents to help you by having discussions with their students at home. Many times, if the students know that home and school are on the same page, they will stop trying to play the one off of the other. Ask mom and dad to explicitly tell Johnny that you asked them to speak with him about your concerns and the areas that he needs to improve upon. Most parents will gladly communicate your wishes and will stay in communication with you until things improve.
Now you can share grades. Saving grades to this point in the conference shows that you care about their students as individuals, not just test scores. If there are specific things or assignments the students need to do, repeat steps 2 and 3 above. Set the action points that will help parents help their kids improve their grade.
Finally, use their name (see above…again) and thank them for coming. Let them know the best way to contact you for further questions or concerns and encourage them to connect with you.
Remember, the more proactive you can be, the better things will be in the long run. No teacher will ever look forward to a 14-hour day. But hopefully using these strategies you can understand the purpose behind conferences and use them to your advantage. Understanding the relevance will make the time worth your while…and you’ll be surprised how fast the evening goes.