If you have never experienced Parent Conferences—or even if you have—you might be nervous. As a new teacher, you know you’re under scrutiny, and every veteran teacher has at least one horror story about a conference gone awry. I know I do. Admittedly, the parent is there to find out about you as much as to find out about his/her child, but being prepared ahead of time will help you avoid sticky or empty conversations. Plus, what they’ll find out about you is that you’re a professional who really cares about their child.
Here are some ideas for keeping the conversation focused on the student’s needs and progress and for creating the partnering relationship with parents that is such an important component of student success.
1. Think about creating a handout (a chart, for example) that outlines your course or the work for the semester or your expectations. Write it in layman’s language, but keep it professional. Add a section at the bottom (or side-by-side with the units) explaining how parents can help with each topic or unit or project.
Parents can help in so many fundamental ways—even if it’s just nagging their kids about due dates. For example, parents can
- Quiz students on spelling and/or vocabulary. Check that students have signed in to the electronic programs you use. Show the parents how to access the eBooks you use as well as programs such as Turn It In, Write to Learn, Vocabulary.com, Quizlet, Spelling City—etc. Tell the parents why you use this program—to many of them, these electronic tools are a big mystery.
- Listen to their students’ speeches.
- Help with math problems (if you use a different system than parents are accustomed to, be sure to tell the parents that!).
- Drill students on the multiplication table and other foundational math skills.
- Talk through a writing assignment and make an informal outline—a form of pre-writing that many kids need.
- Ask students to read and then summarize orally what they’ve read.
- Memorize the elements chart—even in high school parents can help with basic skills and processes.
2. If you post your assignments on your web page or on an electronic calendar, explain to the parents how to access that information (Be sure to keep it updated!). Your web page or other system may be far more elaborate than just a posting of assignments, but however simple or complex it may be, parents can easily check the student’s assignments if they know how to access the information.
3. If the parent says the student has trouble staying focused, suggest that the parent sit down with the child while he does his homework. Set a timer and take breaks. Reward the student when the work is done. Positive reinforcement is so much more effective than negative consequences at the end of the grading period.
Sometimes parents find it hard to sit down because they really can’t help—the assignment is beyond them or they, frankly, don’t find it interesting to watch their child do homework. Suggest they get their own project going and do their “homework” side-by-side with their child. Menu planning, sorting coupons, reading something for work the next day, catching up on correspondence, reading a novel: Whatever it is, they’ll be modeling the process of homework—and getting something done themselves!
4. If you have copies of projects that students have done in the past, show these as examples of what your expectations are. (Take the names off.)
- Preview areas where the individual student (whose parents you are talking to) might struggle as you move forward with instruction.
- Show parents samples of their own student’s work. That will help to keep the discussion focused on what the individual student is having trouble with or needs to do. If you don’t already keep classroom portfolios, assemble an informal collection before conferences. Have students insert the latest test, their best work, and an assignment they had trouble with.
- Show the parent something you’ve graded so they see the kinds of things you’re looking for—and so you can point out the problem areas concretely.
5. Explain the on-site tutoring resources available to all students. In some schools, teachers provide tutoring in math and English labs during their extra duty hour. Sometimes, a teacher provides extra help routinely during the prep hour or after school.
Let parents know when you, personally, are available to students outside of class time. Can the students email you at home? If so, what’s the cut-off time? You do have a life and you do go to bed!
Give the parent a business card with your prep time and contact information–so they don’t call when you can’t talk to them. Explain that they need to call or email you for information. If you promise to call them on a regular basis or whenever, say, Susie forgets her homework, you’ll have just one more thing to remember. Of course you’ll call if there’s an emergency or an incident or something urgent, but don’t promise to call or email on a regular basis. Let them do that part.
6. Create some space early in the conversation for the parent to ask questions or to tell you what they are concerned about. In other words, don’t talk non-stop and never let them get a word in edge-wise. That will just be off-putting. What you are aiming for is a dialogue, and all of these suggestions are really possible entry points for that conversation, or responses to questions, or strategies for dealing with problems.
If the line at your door is long and you think the night (or afternoon) will never end, remember this: The students whose parents take an interest in school are the lucky ones. They are the students most likely to succeed.
I used to enjoy parent conferences—I really did. I felt like I was welcoming friends into my own home. (That not an exaggeration. We spend enough time at school that our classroom qualifies as a second home!) As the years went by, I really was greeting old friends—I’d had my current students’ older siblings by then, and eventually, I’d had my students’ parents even (!). I’d been partnering with these folks for a long, long time and they knew that I really cared about their children’s progress.
We show parents that when we meet them as professionals—warmly, genuinely, and with partnership in mind.
Happy conferencing—you’re a pro!