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Seven Ideas for Meaningful Parent-Teacher Conferences

Let me describe the worst parent-teacher conferences I ever attended. Picture a large, echoing gymnasium, with teachers seated behind tables set nearly edge-to-edge around the perimeter; two molded-plastic chairs face each table. In the center of the gym, a roiling mass of hundreds of parents, trying to locate their daughter's teachers, assessing the length of lines. Facing each table, a line of parents, standing, waiting for their three-minute "conference" with the teacher, also their only opportunity to sit down during the evening.

How did parents know that a conference should take three minutes? Because it said so in the information sheet picked up at the front door. Also on the sheet: a reminder that teachers should not be asked for a special phone or e-mail chat, later. In other words--here's your three minutes. Use 'em or lose 'em. When parents finally made it up to the table, they could hear conferences on either side of them, while the people waiting behind were a) keeping tabs on the length of each conversation and b) discreetly eavesdropping.

My husband and I did this for four years, dividing and conquering the lines, sometimes stopping for a stiff drink on the way home. Because--we're the kind of parents who always attend conferences, kindergarten through senior year. Between us, we got about 21 private minutes with our daughter's high school teachers, annually--an hour and a half over four years. And we were paying tuition for this well-regarded private-school education.

Fortunately, most schools design parent-teacher conferences in ways more amenable to actual communication between parents and teachers. The advent of student-led conferences is evidence that there's been significant re-thinking around what conferences should feel like and accomplish. Alternative scheduling, child care, refreshments, translators and communication via any channel available are offered in many places. I don't know many teachers who wouldn't welcome a parent-initiated conversation at any time.

But--there's a reason for scheduled conferences. A parent who hesitates to make a call about a problem gets an open invitation to discuss it when conferences roll around. I have never understood teachers who claim that the parents we need to see don't show up. Don't we need to see all parents--whether their children are all-stars or strugglers? Isn't our job enhancing the learning of all kids?

Some ideas:

#1) The point of a conference is not to display the student's current averaged grade, point out missing assignments or contrive ways to achieve/maintain a particular grade. There are better ways to keep track of grades--which should largely be the student's responsibility by middle school, anyway. If the only reason we hold conferences is to talk about grades, then teachers are complicit in elevating grades over learning. If a parent leaves a conference with a list of grades and nothing else, it's wasted time.

#2) Conferences are an opportunity for two-way communication. They're not merely a stage for teachers to give parents information on classroom performance, although many teachers do just that. Conferences are also a place for parents to tell teachers things about their child: How he likes to learn. What she says about the class at home. How he enjoys spending free time. What she says about other students in the class. After a good conference, both the parent and teacher know more about how things could be better.

#3) A conference with parties sitting on either side of a table or desk reinforces hierarchies. Figure out comfortable seating with no barriers. Making parents queue up outside your door--or sit in little tiny chairs--is neither efficient nor courteous. If Disneyland can figure out how to expedite lines and take turns, so can schools.

#4) If a parent seems to be exaggerating, there's an underlying message. (My child sits at the table every night for three hours, doing homework!) If a teacher seems to be testy, or resistant (I only give 15 minutes of homework per night!)--a different message. Somewhere between the two claims is truth--but finding it will take some clarifying questions. Is the student unwilling to admit he doesn't understand something? Is the teacher tied to unnecessary homework? It's hard to ask uncomfortable questions. Do it anyway.

#5) Teachers should share stories about what each student does in class. This might involve an artifact as evidence of learning (an essay, project, lab report or even a test), but sharing narratives of kids' behavior as learners is essential. Invite parents to tell stories about the child's use of math, language, logic, or music at home.

One of the most heart-warming observations I heard as a parent was when my son's 8th grade English teacher showed us sketches of cars Alex drew in his journal during free-writing. "Aren't these cool?" he said. "Someday that boy's going to work in the automotive industry." What that told us: He's paying attention to Alex. He knows Alex, and values Alex's interests.

#6) Ask parents how they want to stay in touch about important things (not reporting a weekly running grade). Open that channel by sending a quick initial e-mail or calling. The conference should merely be the first contact, the open door. Even if you never use the channel, it's there.

#7) Most parents come to conferences to get a deeper sense of who's spending time with their kids. Tell them the truth.

What are your ideas about parent-teacher conferences?

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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