Meet the Parents

Fall break here in Edmond, Oklahoma can only mean one thing. No, I’m not talking about time off with the kids while the weather is crisp, cool, and clear. What I am thinking about is parent-teacher conferences.

Photo of teacher talking with parents and studentWhat do parent-teacher conferences conjure in your imagination? There are times when I have dreaded conferences and times when I looked forward to them…the same is true for everyone. But over the years I have discovered some common-sense things I can do to prepare in order to make them go as smoothly as possible. No matter if the student is a straight A, well-behaved perfectionist, or if they barely scrape by with minimal effort and struggle with behavior as well, these tips can help the conference be more of a positive experience.

1. Call or email parents ahead of time. Encourage them to make an appointment and to attend conferences. Tell them you are looking forward to meeting them and discussing what is best regarding their child. Set a positive tone from the beginning so that even if things go “downhill from there” you at least have one positive interaction.

2. Catch up on your grading. Make sure that even the most recent work is graded. Parents, especially ones who anticipate a negative conference, will look for “reasons” (read: excuses) why their son or daughter is not doing well. Ungraded work will provide them with things they can point to (no matter how inaccurate or unfair). Completed grading shows them you are “up to speed” on their child’s current situation and that John or Sue has appropriate feedback to know what they need to do to improve.

3. Create a short suggestion sheet in advance. Make enough copies so that all parents and guardians in attendance can have one of their own. List both positive things and things that could be improved on the sheet. Having something tangible in everyone’s hands can help keep the conversation on-track.

4. Prior to the conference—talk with the other teachers of the students who have experienced difficulty in your class. Find out if each student is having the same problems in their classes. If so, they might be able to give you some insight on what to do or say. At the very least, this will allow you to make more general suggestions for improvement, rather than always being specific to your class. You could say something like “I’ve noticed that John has difficulty turning in his homework on Friday mornings. When I checked with his other teachers they indicated they have observed the same thing. Is there something happening on Thursday evening that might make it difficult for him to do his assignments?” When a general pattern of behavior can be established, then the focus is off of you and more on the behavior that needs correction.

5. Start the conference on a positive note. Everyone loves to hear something good about their child. And YES you can find at least 2 or 3 things you can mention, even if it is something like “Riley seems to have a lot of friends,” or “Danna is very athletic.” Look for ways to build on these strengths when addressing negative behavior. For example, “I’ve noticed that Riley seems to have a lot of friends. Maybe she could organize a study group a few days before the next exam so that she does better. Teaching others the material will help her learn it better herself.”

6. Transition to areas of improvement as a separate topic. Don’t spoil your compliments by saying, “But…” Instead, say “I’d also like to discuss some areas that need improvement, but I need your help…”

7. Be gentle and compassionate when discussing areas for improvement. If the parent views you as wanting only the best for their child (and they will get this impression more by how you say things or how you do things than what you say), they are more likely to get onboard with your plans. Building a team approach is much more effective than trying to correct the student while fighting the parent. Ask them for their ideas about what they can do, or what their child can do. After all, they have spent more time with their child than you have so they know them inside and out. See if you can incorporate some of their suggestions. If they start to make suggestions about how you can do your job better, gently steer the conversation back to what they can do on their end to help their child succeed.

8. Try to get agreement or “buy-in” on an action plan to remediate any deficiencies. If they are part of the solution, they are more likely to be supportive.

9. Follow-up the conference with a “thank you” email or phone call. Mention how much you appreciate them taking the time to come and talk with you. Share with them how you know they are interested and involved parents. Again, a positive tone and sincere compliments can go a long way in building a good relationship.

Parent-Teacher conferences do not have to be a negative experience. Even in those cases when you have to deliver bad news, you can do so in a positive and encouraging way that focuses on solutions. Having a clear “path forward” will encourage parents to help their students learn.

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