Set the Stage for a Productive Parent Conference

P1000130If 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,, 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’ pP1000133arents 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!







Go to the Parent Conference

Face it: When Parent Conference Night rolls around, we’re all tired. I’m tired from a long day in the classroom; you’re tired from your day of work, too. Frantically eating dinner, remaining dressed up, and driving to the school (perhaps for the second or third time that day) may seem like a lot of effort for a minimal return.

But parents should always attend conferences—even if the teacher says they don’t need to. Here’s why:

For the teacher, you are more than a visible presence that night, more than a momentary reminder that your child’s progress in school matters to you. When you show up at conference time, I have you in the back of my mind all the rest of the year. By meeting you, I get a rounded picture of your child and develop a clear sense of obligation to you as a family. It isn’t that I don’t pay attention to the kids whose parents don’t come to conference. I do. In fact, the most frequent lament about conferences that I voice—and the one I hear the most often from other teachers—is that the parents who most need to come, don’t.

It isn’t that I cater to your child, either—because I don’t.

Here’s the secret not a lot of parents realize: Attendance at a parent conference—or an open house—is not a perfunctory exercise. Parents and teachers form relationships because of these interactions, and the parents who do attend conferences become a sort of litmus test for the ideas we invent, for the questions we have, for the quandaries we’re in. What would Sally’s parents or Joe’s parents think of this idea? This method? This idea for a field trip? This expectation? Could they be a resource? Would they chaperone? Is what I am expecting, reasonable?

Knowing you broadens my perspective. Your responses factor into my decision-making.

And just as I develop a rounded picture of your child when I meet you, you have a better picture of me when you come to the conference: not just what I look like (though that helps when you’re reading an email from me or speaking to me on the phone), but my demeanor, the intensity in my voice, my facial expression when I talk about your child. All of those little clues inform your response to me—and that could be important at some point during our year together.

Bottom line: when you come to the conference, you open up that line of communication between us. There’s a problem I should know about? Something’s come up? It’s easier to call me or email when you know who I am—and it’s easier for me to approach you if we’ve already met.

When you come to the conference, you learn the details behind the grade on the report card. Not just the standardized test scores, though you’ll learn those, too, and you’ll have an opportunity to have them explained. But you’ll also find out what you may not know: that your child is a good listener or a respectful group leader or needs help with understanding figurative language or doesn’t take notes or doesn’t take advantage of extra help or checks out more books from the library than anyone else in the class or went out of his way to help someone else. When you come to the conference, you’ll find out I know a lot about your child and I care about him, too.

Go to the parent conference so your child has concrete evidence that you care, so he or she knows that you will always go to the parent conference, good or bad. If you only go when there is a problem, that will communicate the wrong message. After the conference, let your child know how proud of him you are and how much you appreciate his teacher and the chance to meet with her. Make him think parent conferences are cool because parents and teachers get to talk together about the one person who is at the center of the universe: him. Make your child proud that you attend the conferences. As he grows older, there will be plenty of kids whose parents don’t, and you will want your child to think your attendance is cool, not dumb.

By going to the parent conference, you’re reaching out across the generations. Children watch everything their parents do. Because you went to school to meet their teachers, they will show up at their children’s conferences. It’s all about modeling.

It’s also a chance—and here’s a shameless plug for all the hard-working teachers I know—for a parent to thank the teacher for all he or she does–teachers need pats on the back, too, so a thank you is a boost, and a positive conference is just as important as a problem one, even if it does take up a few minutes when we’re all tired and ready to go home.

And let me add this before I move away from the subject: For the most part, I really enjoy parent conferences. When I open my classroom door and parents drop in (We don’t have appointments at the high school), I feel like I am inviting them into my home. In some ways, I am. I spend more awake hours per week at school than at my home, and I do “clean house” for my visitors: I wipe down the tables, clean the boards, tidy up for the occasion. I stop short of cookies and tea (although that might not have been a bad idea for sweetening a couple of the conferences I’ve had in my career).

Many of the parents I see are like family. I’ve taught all of their children—or more than one of their children—and I’ve even taught some of them. Sometimes they’ll stick their heads in the door and wave at me even though I no longer have their children in my classes. If I’m not in conference with someone, they’ll come in to chat, bring me up to date on the kids who are now in college, or grad school, or having babies, or farming, or working in Indianapolis, or traveling somewhere in the world. That means a lot. I’ve invested time, energy, and yes, love in their children, and I really do want to know what is happening in their lives and how they’ve fared in the wider world.

So go to the conference–all the way through high school. Even if all you do is stick your head in the door and wave.