I don’t remember much from the year I spent as a student teacher. It was in a fifth-grade classroom. The kids were mostly well behaved. When I took over lead teaching, I had the idea that I would run a classroom where students didn’t need to raise their hands. My mentor teacher looked at me askance, but to her credit allowed me to fail on my own. Most of the time, I was trying to keep my head above water. I learned most by failing, but there were a few things my mentor teacher did that I took with me to my first job. Some of the most enduring lessons were on how to conduct parent-teacher conferences. After 18 years in the classroom and an estimated 450 conferences, here are my five best pieces of advice:
Let the Parent Go First
Here’s how my mentor teacher put it before the very first parent walked in on our first night of conferences: “Always start by asking the parent if they have anything they’d like to talk about.” Most parents will come in and be content to hear what you have to say. But there will usually be a couple who have a burning issue they’ve been waiting to address with you. If you start in with your prepared remarks, or student artifacts, or the progress report, these parents will not be listening. They’ll be thinking about what they want to say, just like you do when you’re pissed off in a staff meeting and can’t wait to vent while your principal blathers on about something you care not a whit about.
If a parent walks in with student work in her hand, you can bet that’s what she wants to talk about. Start your conference with these words: “Hi, thanks for coming! Now, before I get into what I’m going to say, is there anything you’d like to discuss?” Then shut up and listen.
Show That You Understand Their Kid
You spend seven hours every day with your students. Their parents spend less. More than wanting to know how their child is doing in school (they usually know) and whether or not they behave during class (they have a pretty good idea about that, too), parents want to know if you get their kid. They want to know if you respect their child enough to get to know them and accept them for their differences. They want to know if you see the children in front of you as individuals.
Say at least one non-judgmental thing that shows you understand each child. Even if your observation is a less-than-desirable characteristic, the fact that you’ve noticed their kid is important to parents.
A former colleague interviewed for a teaching job with another district but didn’t get it, even though she thought it went well. During the call where she learned she wasn’t getting the job, she asked what she could have done differently. She was told she was a “model candidate” and received no constructive feedback. She asked what she could do to improve and was basically told nothing.
People crave feedback. We don’t mind being told hard truths if it will help us get what we want. Parents want their children to succeed, and to do so they need to know what their children can do to make that happen. Telling parents that their child “lacks motivation” when in reality they don’t do any work in the room at all is a disservice. Reporting that a child creates a lot of “interpersonal conflict” is hiding behind jargon. Just say they don’t play well with others and that in most of the cases, you’ve observed their child to be the instigator.
Don’t be a jerk, but do be honest.
If Jimmy doesn’t focus on his work and gets little done in class, say so. If Susan acts without thinking and her impulsivity regularly interferes with others’ learning, let the parents know. If Quentin is reading behind grade level and you’ve witnessed him on many occasions doing everything he can to avoid reading, explain to his mom and dad that he’s not going to improve unless he actually reads.
Parents can’t help their kids get better if they don’t know what to work on and you’re in the best position to know what they need to work on, so tell them.
Describe, Don’t Diagnose
Teachers aren’t doctors and shouldn’t pretend they are. We don’t know the causes of what we’re seeing and even if we’ve seen it ten times before, we should stay in our lane. If pushed by parents — I sometimes have parents who come right out and ask if I think their child has ADHD–stick to what you have observed.
“He has a very hard time focusing. He rarely finishes assignments. Yesterday, he completed the first three problems in three minutes, but then completed only one more over the next fifteen minutes.”
“He doesn’t get work done and he bothers others during work time.”
“Whenever he doesn’t get his way, he throws a fit. Other students have noticed and they avoid him.”
Telling parents what you’ve seen puts you in the position of simply being a reporter. If pressed, stick to that role. You can even add, “I’m just telling you that this is what I’ve witnessed in the classroom.”
Let There Be No Surprises
A good way to have a disastrous conference night is to never tell parents anything until they’re sitting right in front of you and then unload all the bad news at once. They feel ambushed, and you come across as unprofessional. You have all the knowledge, you’ve kept it to yourself, and then you’ve sprung it on an unsuspecting victim in a public place where they can’t just get up and storm out without looking like horrible parents. Save yourself a lot of trouble by letting the parents know, at the earliest date, about any problems their child is having at school. If a parent is surprised at any point during the conference, then you haven’t been communicating enough. If you’ve dropped the ball in this regard (and I have), admit it.
Say: “I’m sorry. I should have called,” or “I should have sent home more student work.” Ask them how frequently they would like to be updated going forward. Then promise to do better.
A good conference is about the teacher first listening to any concerns the parents may have and then communicating the information parents need to know so they can help their children succeed. Do the above, and your conferences will be productive.