By Teachers, For Teachers
It's almost that time again-time to wrap up the quarter's grading, recalculate all the figures, prepare the report cards, linger over comments, and arrange to “meet the parents”. For many teachers, this may be a walk in the park, just another part of the job, but for some, this is a time of great stress.
While I have had my share of stressful conferences, I have found over the years a few methods to make conferences run smoother, become more productive, and actually more enjoyable.
Although we spend all year getting to know our student's personality as well as academic strengths and weakness, it is equally important to try to get to know the parents. If at all possible, communicate daily with parents. A simple hello during drop off/pick up, emails, notes home, will keep them informed and help you get to know the family more. Understanding that most households have two working parents, single parent, two sets of parents/households, or grandparents will better equip you to communicate the needs of your student. Keep in mind, you may need to make double copies of materials for those students who have parents don't live together. Often, you will have two conferences for one child.
I have discovered having copies of tests, quizzes, reports, or daily work to show parents of a struggling student help them to see where errors are being made and how we can work together to help the student. Simply showing a letter grade or percentage does not give the parents insight to what may be the problem.
Although we have been drilled those special “teacher” words, parents have not. Make sure to use everyday words to describe skills and concepts.
We have all been in conferences where we have had to deliver bad news (IE, a child is failing, behavior is poor, testing is required, etc). Understanding that you are telling a parent news that may be difficult to hear, will help you choose the right words. Put yourself in their place. If you are a parent and have sat through conferences, this is easy to do. If you are not a parent, then take a step back and try to see things as the parent may see them. Parents are their child's greatest advocate. They will naturally want to speak up for them or possibly defend their behavior. Be aware of what you say and how you say it. Don't immediately become defensive. Parents may often appear to be assigning blame when in reality they are just looking for answers.
If you are sharing with a parent that their child is struggling or possibly even failing, be ready with a plan. Nothing is worse than being told your child is failing math and not be offered a solution. Most parents will not know how to help their child. Creating a plan with the parent will not only help the student but also allow the parent to be more involved in their child's education and success.
It is challenging to keep track of time during a conference. Looking up at the clock ever so often, may send the message that you are not really interested in what is being said. Don't be a “clock watcher”.
The downside of not keeping track of time is having parents waiting outside for their scheduled time. Parents who have to wait often become unhappy parents. You don't want to start a conference with an agitated parent. Use a kitchen timer. Explain to parent(s) before beginning that you are using the timer to ensure everyone gets their scheduled time. Should the timer go off and you need to discuss further, arrange to meet another time when you are not so restricted. Remember this time has been scheduled to discuss the child's progress/needs, not to discuss the upcoming Christmas party. Do your best to stay on topic.
Another thought, if you know a particular conference needs additional time, try arranging that conference at the end of the scheduled time. This way if you run over, no one is waiting.
Before a conference, I make notes of what I want to discuss with each parent regarding their child. Within these notes, I have examples of work, strategies and tips, as well as any handouts I may have for the parents. While talking with the parents, I will make additional notes regarding parent input. After the conference, I will make a copy and send home to the parent. By doing this, parents can see what was discussed and our steps/plan to move forward (yes, I said OUR- education is a partnership).
It can be intimidating meeting your students' parents on a one to one basis, especially parents who are highly educated and very involved in their child's academic learning (aka helicopter parent). These parents expect perfection from little Susie and often question your methods or assign blame when Susie does not reach this goal. If you have documented Susie's success and possible failures throughout the quarter, you have work to show parents. Make sure you have an action plan, and you remember to speak respectfully and clearly. By doing this, parents should respond in a positive manner. I cannot say they all will but they should. There are some parents you cannot please, no matter what you do. However, they have less to fuss about if you are prepared.
This can be quite challenging especially if you have a “Billy”. Billy is the child who never stays in his seat, calls out constantly, is terrible at spelling and math, never has his homework, and has little to no self control. Spending an entire conference sharing negative comments with parents will just lead to more negativity. Nothing will get accomplished and chances are, Billy's parents are just as frustrated and in search of the perfect plan as you are. Praise Billy. Even if Billy just sat down for five minutes to eat the M&M's during math activity time, give him praise. Tell the parent, “Billy did a great job staying in his seat during our math activity. I was so proud of him. Instruction time is still a challenge for him. I would like to see if Billy could stay in his seat for ten minutes during our instruction time. That will be our goal for Billy this week.” By starting out with praise, you have shown the parents that Billy is capable. By continuing to state what challenges Billy, you have indicated he has not mastered this skill, and by setting a goal, you have given the parents a plan.
I mention this, not as a method but as an added thought. A few years ago, I gave my parents the option of allowing their child to attend the conference. (Keep in mind, I taught 4/5th grade.) A few of my parents thought this was great and at the appointed time, little Johnny sat across from me with his parents. I thought this was a great way to have my students share in the responsibility of their learning, as well as give some accountability for any behavioral issues we may have had. I had both a negative and positive experience. It was positive in that the students, who were responsible and for the most part academically successful, understood their role and left with a smile on their face. Those students who had more behavioral issues felt I was “ratting” them out and immediately went on the defensive. Instead of being a productive conference as I had hoped, it turned into a “did not, did so” (between the parent/child) kind of meeting. Needless to say, I have since selected which students I allow to attend if I allow students to attend at all.
What are your thoughts? Do you think students should attend conferences? What other tips do you have for creating a positive parent conference?