Anyone who has been on the "parent" end of a parent-teacher conference knows that the conversation can sometimes be challenging. Does the teacher really see the parent as a partner in improving student outcomes?
Joan Walker, an associate professor in the School of Education at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., is working to improve the parent-teacher conference, beginning with her student teachers at Pace—but with the potential to reach educators anywhere who want to try her free online training.
Walker, with co-author Benjamin H. Dotger of Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., won a prestigious award in February for best research article of the year, from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
"Communicating with families is a central facet of the teaching profession, yet few teacher education institutions help candidates develop their knowledge, skills, and dispositions for family-school partnership," the two wrote in "Because Wisdom Can't Be Told: Using Comparison of Simulated Parent-Teacher Conferences to Assess Teacher Candidates' Readiness for Family-School Partnership" from the January/February 2012 issue of the Journal of Teacher Education.
The article describes the study of teacher candidates' communication strategies in parent-teacher conference scenarios via online video case studies.
These once- or twice-a-year confabs can have a profound impact on how parents perceive their children's ability to learn, perform in the classroom, and what parents can do at home to help their children improve.
In her work, Walker established a "gold standard" set of parent-teacher conference activities through an expert panel. This work led to seven effective steps teachers can use to conduct effective parent-teacher conferences, which are depicted in videos she uses as teaching tools.
"I saw how tentative my students are about talking to parents," Walker told Education Week. "As tentative they are, they make blunders. They need help with learning to ask questions of parents," she said.
Walker set up a case study scenario about Chris, a student who fails to turn in homework and is frequently off task, then challenged her student teachers to act as though they are talking to Chris' parents about the issues.
Their questioning fell into three categories:
- A generic inquiry, such as, "Has anything like this happened before?" is asked by 61 percent of students;
- A student-oriented question, like "I don't know enough about Chris. Can you tell me what he's interested in and how he spends time outside of school?" is asked by 18 percent;
- A partnership question, looking at the parent as a partner and honoring his or her expertise about a child, such as, "I seem to have trouble getting Chris motivated in class. What do you do to motivate him?" is asked by only 2 percent.
"Very rarely are they asking partnership questions. When I talked to them about it in class, the response I got was that they think they might be intruding. But to me, the absence of the partnership questions is very telling in that they do not see parents as a resource," Walker said.
For her students, who are preservice teachers—either undergraduates or career changers with a degree in another area—Walker identifies four essential behaviors for teachers:
- Establishing a positive opening,
- Sharing information,
- Gathering information, and
- Establishing an action plan.
Walker also identifies three essential dispositions:
- Maintaining a positive relationship or tone throughout the meeting,
- Accepting the parents' emotions, and
- Managing time or the conversational flow.
She said that two-thirds of her students commented on the importance of a positive tone, but only 5 percent anticipated that they might need to deal with parents' emotions or with time constraints.
"In a nutshell, this work is important because it helps me understand my students' strengths and weaknesses, which I can then address in our coursework. And when they see the results of their work, they get to self-evaluate and begin to develop a set of skills and an awareness of their disposition toward families," Walker explained.
Since the original publication of the journal article, Walker has expanded her work into a free online course. "I am eager to share [this] with teacher educators, teachers and K-12 administrators across the country," Walker said in a press release. "The three-part interactive course uses real-life, classroom-based challenges, video examples, and other tools to help beginning teachers successfully conduct parent-teacher conferences."
For more information about the open course materials, contact Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see Walker's work in action: