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Response: Strategies for Effective Parent-Teacher Conferences

 (This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective ways to handle parent/teacher conferences?


Parent-teacher conferences are a staple of school life. This series will explore different ways of making them work best for everyone involved.

Today's post highlights responses from Luz Santana, Leticia Skae, Mandi White, Tara Dale, Sanée Bell, PJ Caposey, and Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Luz, Leticia, and Tara on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources On Parent/Teacher Conferences, as well as previous posts that have appeared here on Parent Engagement in Schools.  You might find my previous Ed Week Teacher piece on parent-teaching conferences, What 'Star Wars' Can Teach Educators About Parent Engagement, particularly useful.

Response From Luz Santana

Luz Santana is co-director of The Right Question Institute and co-author of Partnering with Parents to Ask the Right Questions and Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask their Own Questions. On Twitter, she's @LuzSantana20:

Parent-teacher conferences are valuable opportunities for educators and parents to work as a team and set a plan of action to support a child's education.

The New York City education department says "an ideal parent-teacher conference is a conversation"—their emphasis—"between you and your student's parent about their child's progress at school." The Baltimore school district asks, "Do your parents view themselves as equal partners in their child's education? If so, how? If not, why?"

Advice abounds on how to conduct them, often and rightly emphasizing what to do before, during, and after the conference: It's important to prepare materials and information ahead of time, create a welcoming environment, establish next steps, and follow up with parents afterward.

Some resources include things like, "20 Questions to Ask at a Parent-Teacher Conference." Asking questions is a key skill for thinking, learning, acquiring information, and taking action. However, we've found it's not always helpful for parents to rely on questions others have formulated and decided are most important. In fact, that's a mistake we made while working in a low-income community outside Boston. We provided preformulated questions to parents, and as a result, they became increasingly dependent on us to figure out what they should be asking. We learned it's important to build the skill of question formulation. When parents formulate and ask their own questions regarding their children's education, they become more invested and have greater ownership when it comes to implementing a course of action.

After much trial and error, we developed the Question Formulation Technique, or QFT, a step-by-step process for generating and prioritizing questions. The QFT is one practical tool for making parent-teacher conferences more effective, and it can help build skills for stronger school-family partnerships over the long term. It automatically puts the parent's voice at the center of the conversation, has a built-in framework for discussing next steps, and helps lay groundwork for follow-ups.

On a practical level, it's an immediate, concrete and doable preparation activity.

When you send materials to parents ahead of upcoming conferences, include a handout inviting them to generate and prioritize their own questions in advance. Make sure to communicate the value of coming prepared with priority questions: It will allow more efficient use of time, and parents will identify what they want to know.

During the conference, start the conversation by going over parents' priority questions. If necessary, carve out 3-4 minutes at the beginning of the conference to generate some questions on the spot.

This requires a small shift in practice compared with the usual model: You're beginning the conference with parents' questions as opposed to asking at the end, "Do you have any questions?" The parent is therefore setting some of the agenda, and you're listening to what the parent wants and needs to know, which can be insightful. You are not providing a list of recommended questions parents should be asking. You are not recommending to parents what they should do, but you are providing a structure where they can think about their own role in supporting, monitoring, and advocating for their child.

Here's how it can help down the road: You are building parents' skills for partnering by creating space to generate and prioritize key questions about education and other issues. By making the parent's voice a centerpiece of the conference, you are putting them on equal footing and increasing buy-in for action plans. You are engaging in more effective two-way communication, which helps build relationships and partnerships.

Parents asking questions is not a silver-bullet solution to all the challenges associated with parent-teacher conferences and school-family relationships, but it's a concrete, simple activity to help move in the right direction.

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Response From Leticia Skae

Leticia Skae is a literacy coach in the Metro Nashville public schools and a graduate of Vanderbilt University. She's in her 13th year in education and is an advocate for culturally responsive teaching and teacher retention. You can find her on Twitter @LSkae:

Handling Parent Conferences Like a Champ

Two years ago, I began teaching at an academic magnet, and it was a completely new experience for me. Previously, I had taught in urban schools for a decade. The transition from one type of school to another was wild! The first thing I realized as soon as I got to the magnet school was my bi-weekly parent meetings from previous schools had now become daily parent conferences. So, very quickly I had to step my "conference game" up or else parents were going to come in and tear me to pieces.

Here's what I learned:

  1. Make expectations explicit—Parents will be much more willing to work with you when you have made your classroom practice and expectations explicit. Each teacher is different, so it is important to help guide parents through this process. For example, my syllabus was so specific, I even put a note in there that I only answered emails from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Why did I do this? Well, parents would email me a question at dinner time when I was feeding my toddler or after 10 p.m. when I was asleep and then expect an answer right away. This was an unreasonable expectation because my time at home was time for my family, and I wanted them to know this upfront.

  2. Say something positive about the student—I don't care if that student set his classroom desk on fire; find one nice thing to say immediately. This helps the parent know that you do see the good in their child and that the situation can be improved. Say something like, "Little Johnny is so creative, and I love his energy in class. However, I think that we need to work on helping him express himself in a different way because setting the classroom desk on fire is not appropriate." Practice whatever you will be saying before the meeting as well; this will help you when you are struggling to find that one nice thing.

  3. Document everything—Don't just tell a parent that their child has not been completing work, show them. Parents need evidence. So, keep examples of student work. They are more likely to believe you when you can show them the proof. If you haven't done a good job documenting within your classroom, then parents might use your weakness to influence the outcomes of the meeting. You have to work as a team, so you need to be as organized as possible.

  4. Keep cool—Even if the parent calls you a liar to your face, keep calm. You have to remember that children are extensions of their parents so no parent wants to hear that their child is not progressing in the way in which they are expected. They feel as if they have done something wrong so they get defensive immediately. Don't take it personally and remember that you are a professional and you are the educational expert. Feel free to pay their child another compliment and redirect the conversation so that it is more about problem-solving than name calling.  

These 4 steps helped me through my transition to a new school, and after much reflection, I realized that in any conference with an adult, these steps still ring true.

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Response From Mandi White & Tara Dale

Tara Dale is an Arizona high school science teacher. She earned her bachelor's of science degrees in psychology and biology from Arizona State University. She earned her master's in secondary education from the University of Phoenix. In 2014, she was an Arizona teacher of the year finalist.

Mandi White earned a master's of education in special education from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. In 2007, she moved across the country to begin her teaching career in Phoenix  as a cross-categorical resource teacher for 7th and 8th grade students. After five years of working as a resource teacher, Mandi made the switch to general education and began teaching 7th grade English/language arts. During her five years teaching ELA, she earned a second M.Ed. in educational leadership from Arizona State University. Mandi began her new position as an academic and behavior specialist in July 2017:

Three Tricks for Effective Parent/Teacher Conferences

After teaching on the same team for a decade, we've participated in hundreds of parent/teacher conferences together. We started as first-year teachers the same year so jointly we made errors, reflected on those errors, and improved conferences. Here are our three most powerful tricks to make conferences productive, positive, and a changing force.

  1. Require that the student attends the conference.  

We taught 7th grade so we only met with families who requested a conference (usually because they wanted to hear how wonderful their child was) or who we requested to meet with (usually because we had concerns and wanted to involve the parents in the problem-solving process). If the conference was going to be positive because the student was amazing, it was fun to brag about them while they were sitting there. We reinforced the positive habits of both the student and the parents. 

If the conference was going to focus on improving student success, then communication was streamlined if the student attended. One year we had a conference with a parent because her son was misbehaving to the point of distracting other students. He also stopped turning in his homework. The student couldn't attend, but we decided to meet with Mom anyhow. By the end of the meeting, Mom and all of her son's teachers agreed upon a plan. We felt good. But that night, Mom went home and shared the plan with her son, who had a very different perspective on the situation. We had to meet all over again because we didn't have the entire story. From them on, we vowed to only meet with parents if their child would also attend. We wanted all involved parties to be present so everyone had the opportunity to include their input.   

  1. Use a contract.

So many times, parents (and others) make promises during conferences but then don't follow through. It makes conferences feel like a waste of time. To ensure that parents, teachers, and students are making the most of the conference, we created a contract that not only identifies the student's strengths and areas for improvement but also documents what each party will do: student, teachers, and parents. We commit in writing what we will each do to improve the situation. Then, all parties sign off on the contract, and copies are made available. Although this doesn't guarantee follow-through, it allows teachers to have something to fall back on if someone is not doing their part. There were many times we referred back to this contract when parents would inquire why their child was still not successful in class.  

  1. Use the Oreo cookie strategy.

When you have something negative to say about a child, think of an Oreo cookie, which has two identical ends and something important in the middle. Begin the conversation with something positive so parents know that you truly enjoy their child and aren't picking on their kid. Then explain the purpose of the meeting, such as, "We wanted to talk with you today because Timmy isn't turning in his homework." After discussing the problem and creating a solution, end the conversation with another positive aspect of the student because it sends a message to parents that you desire only to improve an improvable situation. You are communicating with them because you care and believe in their kid.

An African proverb states, "It takes a village to raise a child," and we very much live by this saying. Meeting with parents regularly ensures that all members of the village are working toward the common goal: a child's success.

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Response From Sanée Bell

Sanée Bell, Ed.D., is a middle school principal and adjunct professor who resides in Houston. She has experience as an elementary principal,  middle and high school teacher, and basketball coach. Dr. Bell recognizes her impact as a leader and uses her role to inspire, motivate, and empower others. Sanée shares her thoughts on leadership on her blog saneebell.com and via Twitter @SaneeBell:

As an administrator I have facilitated a number of parent conferences and I have also been on the other end of those conferences as a parent. I have seen the best and the worst of them. As educators, if we focus on the three areas below, the conference will be productive, flow smoothly, and increase the partnership between the teacher and the parent.

Be proactive. Most conferences are called because of what has gone awry. Usually there is negative emotion and frustration on both ends, especially if the parent has called the conference. If a student begins to struggle, the teacher should initiate a phone call. Share with the parent the strategies you are currently trying and ask them for suggestions. I suggest brainstorming together on the best ways to help because you all are working in partnership. Find out how parents like to be communicated with and if there is any information that they can share with you regarding how to best support their child. It is good practice to make some type of positive contact with parents prior to any issues occurring. This will give you some positive deposits, and it will also give you the opportunity to frame the parent-teacher relationship as a partnership. Conferences don't have to be reactive. Engaging in conferences to showcase the positive is also effective and appreciated by parents.

Be prepared. Going to a conference without any information about the student is like a doctor coming into the exam room without a patient's chart. Teachers should always have current achievement information, work samples, and anecdotal notes about the student. Be able to have evidence to support areas of concern as well as paper to write down notes and final outcomes from the conference. I suggest that after the conference, either the same or next day, a copy of notes that outline the outcome of the meeting should be emailed or sent home to parents. This ensures that all parties have the right information and everyone involved is aware of the action plan.

Be positive. Even when a teacher is frustrated with the academic or behavioral performance of a student, it is their responsibility and professional obligation to be positive. Begin the conference with something positive about the child. It is hard for parents to be open to suggestions or a plan if they feel their child or parenting is being attacked. Remember that students want to be successful. They just may not know how or believe that they can be successful. Take the time to find the strengths of each student and approach them from that area.

At the end of the day we, parents and teachers, are on the same team. We are partners in raising and educating the future. Both parties have a wealth of information about the most precious commodity we share—our children. We must see them as "ours" and work together to help them be successful.

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Response From PJ Caposey

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, speaker, and author of six books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for Meridian 223 in Northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

Parent-teacher conferences (PTCs) are often the most public representation of our school system that exists and the most systematic effort to engage families in the educational experience. When thought of in that light, it would make sense that PTCs and PTC preparation would be of prominent concern for schools and school leaders. Yet, they are not. We continue on with our old-school practices, and often teachers are left in the dark with a lack of training and/or clearly communicated expectations.

Below, I provide seven tips to increase the effectiveness of PTCs, but the secret sauce is simpler than any tip provided below. The secret to all great PTCs is that the effectiveness of the meeting is entirely dependent upon the teacher's actions well before the meeting ever takes place. Here is how you do it:

  • Reviewing previous communication and verifying the preferred mode of communication
    • If the PTC is the first time you are talking or communicating with a parent on an individual basis, then expect the conference to be less productive and have a heightened level of tension. Great teachers use this conference as an opportunity to talk about changes they have made or the student has made since the last parent contact. Additionally, if parent contact has been attempted, and replies are scarce, this is an outstanding opportunity to confirm the preferred communication method and frequency with the parent.

  • Clearly communicating outcomes
    • A parent should leave with a clear understanding of what their child has been learning and will be learning in the future. This does not mean you tell them about the 'Rainforest Unit.' This means that you talk to them about the standards, skills, and desired outcomes that drive your class. If those things are not documented and driving the class, there are much larger issues at hand than a negative conference.

  • Explaining your grading
    • Grades seemingly mean more to parents than anything else you will communicate during a PTC. This is an opportunity to explain how you grade to your parents, but danger lurks if you do not sincerely believe in your grading system. Worse is when you cannot articulate or defend current grading practices not aligned with what we know works in education. Grading for behavior, issuing tons of extra credit, having students receiving A's but performing far below standard are areas that will be exploited in these conversations. Grades must mean something and measure what they were told is important in terms of outcomes. Additionally, artifacts should be available to show parents their student's performance in comparison to the expected standard that you can clearly explain. There is nothing worse than not being able to articulate what a rubric says or realizing during the conference that your rubric is not strong.

  • Sharing comparative data
    • Most parents want to know where their student is in comparison to their peers so national benchmarking data are generally appreciated. A common pitfall here is the desire to simply congratulate the parents if the student is doing well—that is not OK. Those students deserve to be pushed and grow as much as any other student—and you should communicate your plan for doing so.

  • Articulating your goals for the rest of the year
    • Any PTC that ends with the parent believing that the teacher is as committed to their student's success as they are is a resounding success. In order to demonstrate that, a teacher must invest time and energy in creating desired outcomes for that student in the future.

  • Describing the student's character
    • Every parent wants to know about who their student is when they are not around. Parents of students that receive discipline in class or school already may have an idea, but for the 85 percent of students that do exactly what they should on a daily basis, this is a time to explain that to their parents. Share the character attributes the student displays in your classroom—leader, follower, helper—or maybe some other type of characteristic. Show the parent you really have gotten to know their student. The parent may not have any idea that their child exhibits those skills, or maybe they have just never had their efforts as a parent validated. This also demonstrates to the parent that you see their child as a person beyond just a student.

  • Partnering with the parent
    • It should never be lost that the PTC is not intended to be the peak of parent-teacher interaction throughout the year. The purpose (of a PTC) is to better engage the family in the education of their child. This should include advice on how the parent can serve as a better partner in their child's education. Think about it—you will never have a better chance than you do during this meeting.

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Response From Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez is a national-board-certified teacher and 2011 Folsom Cordova Unified school district teacher of the year. Sarah currently teaches 5th grade in Rancho Cordova, Calif., and serves on the Washington Unified school district board in West Sacramento, where she lives with her husband and two young children—a 2nd grader and preschooler:

The best teacher-parent conferences are the ones with no surprises for students or families. Before my November parent-teacher conferences, I sit down one-on-one with each student and go over their draft report card. Since grades are posted online, and I work through struggling areas with students individually, surprises are rare. I answer any questions students have and ask them where they would like to grow or challenge themselves. I then hand them a "Conference Notes" form that has a breakdown of each subject area as well as lifelong learning habits (which is a category on our report cards). Each section has a place for teacher comments and student comments. Students write "glimmers" and challenges from the first trimester as well as their second-trimester goals. These goals are then added to my final report card comments. This gives students a chance to take ownership of their learning and be part of the process. I will also add goals to the Conference Notes sheet if I feel there is an important skill the student has not addressed.

When families come in for the conference, I use the Conference Notes to guide our conversation. They see that their child has already gone over their grades and created goals. Years ago, I had a parent come back to me and say, "My child had no idea they were struggling and said you never helped them." This wasn't true, of course—the student was simply afraid of getting in trouble and had made the decision to turn the blame to me. The Conference Notes form eliminates that problem and puts us all on the same page. Instead of focus on areas of struggle, we touch on the challenge and then focus on the goal to improve. At the end of the conference, I ask parents if they have any goals they would like to change or add, and we note that on the form. If any action is needed, such as me sending home resources or the parent signing off on the school agenda nightly, then we create the plan before they leave. Since I keep published writing at school, I pull out the student's writing binder, we review it, and parents take it home for the night to read over in depth.

Usually students are in the conference, and I have them show samples of their work and read their goals. In some instances, I've had students get very anxious during conferences and in those cases I often take over. While we say repeatedly that we're all a team to help support them, some students really struggle being the center of attention and feel very vulnerable. This is especially true if parents have certain grade expectations the student hasn't met. Families who expect all A's can be very challenging, just as parents who don't seem to be concerned when you tell them their child is struggling. In both of these circumstances, I have found that focusing on the goals and plan moving forward keeps the conversation productive.

For the second trimester, I give students the Conference Note sheet and have them reflect on their learning and if goals were met. I then show them their rough-draft report card, and they again create goals for the next trimester. I only conference second trimester with students who have an area of concern or with families who have requested a conference, but I send the Conference Sheet notes home with everyone's report cards. The feedback from students and parents tells me the process is working, and I feel it helps make us a stronger team.

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Thanks to Luz, Leticia, Mandi, Tara, Sanée, PJ, and Sarah for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Look for Part Two in a few days.

 

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