Tips for more successful parent conferences
Communicating with parents is one of the most important things we do as teachers. When we can work together with a child's parents toward common goals, we improve the atmosphere for learning.
Most successful teacher-parent "teams" begin with a conference; usually one conducted before there's a real need to meet.
Of course, while parent conferences can be one of the most helpful techniques in a teacher's "bag of tricks," we also know that sometimes they can be a discouraging waste of time--or even turn into ugly confrontations.
Here are some tips to help make your parent conferences productive and successful:
1. Invite both parents.
Encourage both parents to attend conferences when possible. Misunderstandings are less common if both parents hear what you have to say, and you'll be able to gauge the kind of support both parents give the child.
(Of course, remember that both mother and father may not be available. Many children live in single-parent homes. And, even with two parents, both parents often work outside the home. So be careful not to unwittingly hurt a child's feelings by assuming the availability of parents based on a father-at-work and mother-at home family.)
2. Make contact early.
You'll get your relationship with parents off to a good start if you contact them early in the year, perhaps with a memo or newsletter sent home to all pupils. Give parents an outline of what their children will be studying, and let them know you'll be happy to meet with them during the year. (Be sure to say how and when they may contact you for conferences.)
3. Allow enough time.
Schedule plenty of time for the meeting. Twenty to 30 minutes is usually adequate. If you're scheduling back-to-back conferences, be sure to allow enough time between them (10 minutes or so) so you can make the necessary notes on the just-concluded conferences and prepare for he upcoming one.
4. Plan ahead.
Have in mind a general--but flexible--outline of what you're going to say, including a record of student progress, a review of strengths and needs, and a proposed plan of action.
5. Greet parents near the entrance they'll use.
You'll alleviate anxiety and frustration (nothing is more confusing to the uninitiated than wandering around these look-alike school hallways trying to find the right classroom), and parents will feel more welcome.
6. Be ready for questions.
Be prepared to answer specific questions parents may have. They're likely to ask questions such as:
What is my child's ability level?
Is my child working up to his/her ability level?
How is my child doing in specific subjects?
Does my child cause any trouble?
Does my child have any specific skills or abilities in schoolwork?
7. Get your papers organized in advance.
Assemble your grade book, test papers, samples of the student's work, attendance records and other pertinent data ahead of time. That way you won't be fumbling through stacks on your desk during the meeting.
8. Avoid physical barriers.
Don't sit behind your desk, while forcing the parents to squeeze into the student desks in the front row, or to perch miserably on folding chairs. Arrange conference-style seating, if possible, so that you'll all feel equal.
9. Get the name right.
Don't assume that Jennifer Peabody's mother is Mrs. Peabody. Jennifer's mother may well have remarried since Jennifer was born. Check your records ahead of time to make sure you have the names right. And don't assume that the wrinkled, gray-haired gentleman coming with Johnny is his grandfather. It could be his father, or an uncle. Politely ask.
10. Open on a positive note.
Begin conferences on a warm, positive note to relax everyone. Start with a positive statement about the student's abilities, schoolwork, or interests.
11. Structure the session.
As soon as the parents arrive, review the structure of the conference--the why, what, how and when--so you'll both have an "agenda." (Remember, of course, that parents often come with their own agenda or questions they want answered, so you'll have to be flexible.)
12. Emphasize collaboration.
Let the parents know you want to work together in the best interests of the student. A statement such as "You need to see me as soon as possible to discuss John's poor study habits" only arouses hostility. But "I'd like to discuss with you how we might work together to improve John's study habits" gets the relationship off on the right foot.
13. Listen to what parents say.
Despite the fact that we spend nearly a third of our lives listening, most adults are poor listeners. We concentrate on what we're going to say next, or we let our minds drift off to other concerns, or we hear only part of what a speaker is saying. You'll get more out of a parent conference if you listen carefully to what parents are saying to you.
14. Ask about the student.
You don't want to pry, of course, but remember to ask parents if there's anything they think you should know about the student (such as study habits, relationship with siblings, important events in his or her life) that may affect schoolwork.
15. Focus on solutions.
Ideally, all parent conferences would concern only positive events. Realistically, many conferences are held because there's a problem somewhere. Things will go more smoothly if you'll focus on solutions rather than on the child's problem. Discuss what you and the parents can do to help improve the situation. Plan together a course of action.
16. Don't judge.
It may not always be possible to react neutrally to what parents say--their values may be very different from your own--but communicating your judgment of parents' attitudes or behaviors can be a roadblock to a productive relationship with them. Be respectful of parents at all times.
17. Use body language.
Nonverbal cues set the mood of the conference. Smile, nod, make eye contact and lean forward slightly. You'll be using your body's language to let parents know you're interested and approving.
18. Forget the jargon.
Education jargon like "criterion-referenced testing," "perceptual skills," and "least restrictive environment' may be just double-talk to many parents.
19. Turn the other cheek.
In routine parent conferences, it's unusual to run into a parent who is abusive and hostile. But it can happen. Try not to be rude, whatever the provocation. Hear out the parents in as pleasant a manner as possible, without getting defensive if you can.
20. Be specific in your comments.
Parents may flounder if you deal only in generalities. Instead of saying, "She doesn't accept responsibility," pin down the problem by pointing out, "Amanda had a week to finish her book report, but she wrote only two paragraphs."
21. Offer a suggested course of action.
Parents appreciate being given some specific direction. If Jane is immature, it might be helpful to suggest parents give her a list of weekly chores, allow her to take care of a pet, or give her a notebook to write down assignments.
22. Keep a brief record of the conference.
You may have reason later to refer to the record of what was said at the conference and what suggestions for improvement were made. Make notes as soon as possible after the conference while details are fresh in your mind.
23. Ask for parents' opinions.
Let parents know that you're interested in their opinions, that you're eager to answer their questions, and that you want to work with them throughout the year to help give their child the best possible education.
24. Focus on strengths.
It's very easy for parents to feel defensive because many of them see their own faults in their children. You can help by reviewing the child's strengths and areas of need, rather than dwelling on criticism or stressing weaknesses.
Before the conference ends, review the discussion and the actions that you and the parents have decided to take.
26. Wind up on a positive note.
When you can, save at least one encouraging comment or positive statement about the student for the end of the conference.
27. Meet again if you need to.
If you feel you need more time, arrange another meeting later rather than trying to rush everything before the students get back from art class.