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When I first started teaching, parent-teacher conferences were my worst nightmare! Now after years of practice, I actually enjoy them and look forward to uninterrupted time with parents. When preparing for parent-teacher conferences, it helps to understand the positive aspects of the meeting for parents. First and foremost, it's an opportunity to celebrate their child; second, conferences help parents to feel more connected to the teacher and the school community and third, it's a chance to recognize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and that educators and parents are on the same team to help the child feel confident, grow and succeed.
Here are a few do's and don'ts to make for successful parent-teacher conferences:
Do start with a positive about their child. Even if he/she is one of your most challenging students behaviorally or academically, begin with a positive anecdote, trait, or simply, 'I'm so happy ____ is in my class.' It comforts parents, shows you care and lets them know you notice their child. Plus, it will make it easier when you need to give constructive feedback about their child if they have received positive feedback first.
Don't forget that it's a team effort. Though you may know their child well as a student, the parents have known them their whole life. You need their support just as much as they need yours. Don't be afraid to ask what works for them at home or if they have any insight on their child regarding a certain behavior/situation. If they are also struggling with the same issues, then as a team you can make a plan on how to respond to make it consistent across environments.
Do share an example of a student's reflection during the conference. Whether written or recorded, it brings the child's voice into the conference and allows them to take ownership of their learning and behavior. (It can also be the jumping off point for difficult conversations.) It takes some time and practice to get your students comfortable with reflection, but it's worth it! I've had students match different school situations, subjects, or skills to one of the three Learning Zones the week prior to conferences. When I share the child's reflections with the parents, I've found that if a child puts something challenging in his/her panic zone, like "Staying focused on my work," parents are more open to and honest about discussing that area of growth.
Students can also record their responses on an iPad explaining each learning zone, which allows parents to hear the reflection directly from their child. Obviously, each grade level will look slightly different, but teachers can go simple and it will still be meaningful for both students and parents. For example, instead of writing about learning zones, students can do a Glow and Grow, where they reflect on one GLOW, a certain subject or area in which they feel confident, and a GROW, something in which they need more practice. Some schools are also embracing student-led conferences, which means the child him/herself can lead the conference and share their own reflections and goals.
Don't arrive unprepared. Parents will most likely ask 'How is my child doing?' Have specific examples ready to share that will show where their child is excelling and in what areas they need more practice or support. Be ready to answer the question: 'How can I help my child?' Have a resource list of reading comprehension strategies, book recommendations, or math problem examples, as parents are always grateful to walk away with concrete examples and language to help them.
Do give examples of what language you use at school and your expectations. Some parents are learning what is developmentally appropriate for their child. By letting them know what you expect and how you handle it at school, you give them tools to use at home. Plus, it helps with maintaining consistency across school and home. I offer strategies that I use in the classroom, such as I statements ("I feel ___") for expressing feelings and mindful minutes as a break to calm and focus students.
Don't talk about other students, even if parents bring them up. Parent-teacher conferences are a very short and meaningful time for parents to discuss their child. Try to keep the focus on how their child is doing, not comparing him/her to anyone else or discussing a social conflict that happened in school. You don't want to mention another child's name; however, you can share your observations of how their child handled a situation. For example, "I have seen ____ grow more comfortable this year expressing her feelings in a calm voice during a disagreement with a friend" or "I've noticed that when ____ is working through a social problem, he/she raises her voice at the other student. We are working on taking deep breaths to stay calm when sharing our feelings or frustrations with others."
Do (try!) to have fun. Enjoy this opportunity to bond with your students' parents and give them insight into who their child is as a student. Every school has different requirements for parent-teacher conferences and every teacher has their own style of what works for them during conferences. These do's and don'ts are just to provide you with some new ideas or confirm that you're on the right track. Happy conferencing!
Ashley Huckabone is a Middle School Literacy Coach for Guilford Public Schools in Connecticut. She has eight years of experience teaching elementary education in public and independent schools in New Haven, CT, New York City, and Palo Alto, CA.