The parent-teacher conference allow families to get a better understanding of their children as students. For some parents, these conferences are stressful. They require time off work and can create stress for parents who aren’t native English speakers or who are wary of the school system.
As an educator, you can welcome parents into your classroom and let them know that you are there to support their children. Here is how you can set yourself up for success with parent-teacher conferences.
Welcome Students and Parents Back to School
Parent-teacher conferences are typically held in the middle of the semester. They are used as a tool for parents to check their child’s progress and challenges. Of course, teachers don’t have to wait until October to meet with parents. You can set up meetings and create events that engage families as soon as school starts.
“You can’t force a parent to be involved in their child’s education, but you can encourage and facilitate it,” says Jay Cooper, marketing director at Campus Suite. “Twice-a-year parent-teacher conferences aren’t enough anymore. In a world of dual-income households, single-parent households, and unconventional work hours, you should provide multiple opportunities for them to fit engagement and interaction into their schedules.”
Some teachers set up monthly social activities for their students’ families. They even set up parties ahead of the school year so kids can make friends before their first day.
“Family events represent the first level of involvement,” says education writer Patti Ghezzi. “It’s important to hold family events to help parents get connected to the school, and it’s especially helpful to hold one or two activities specifically for new parents.”
Consider Keeping Virtual Conference Options
Despite the return of in-person education, you may want to continue meeting with parents virtually, or at least offer the video call option as you schedule conference appointments. Video calls are more accessible. They allow for greater flexibility, especially for parents that have multiple or unconventional jobs. Not everyone is free to attend an after-school appointment.
“Some parents have more than one student in the school, multiple jobs, or may have difficulty traveling, so they need teachers to be flexible when scheduling conferences,” explains curriculum designer, educator and internship coordinator at the New York City Department of Education Jennifer L.M. Gunn. “In these cases, teachers may need to meet with parents early in the morning, later in the afternoon, or during recess breaks. Meeting via Skype or FaceTime is an option for parents who simply cannot make it to school.”
Some educators are already evaluating whether virtual parent-teacher conferences should remain this year. What matters is that the parents are engaged and informed, regardless of how that meeting takes place.
“[I’ve] been thinking a lot about equity, access and the pandemic’s silver linings,” tweeted Dr. Julie Hackett, superintendent of schools for Lexington, Massachusetts. “Why on earth wouldn’t we continue with Virtual Parent-Teacher Conferences, IEPs and Committee meetings if it increases family engagement and more members of our school community can participate?”
There are additional benefits to hosting virtual parent-teacher conferences. Nicole Hunn, principal of Steele Elementary School in New York, says students can be part of the parent-teacher conference by making it digital. They don’t have to be there for all of it, but you can engage with the whole family and then have a one-on-one discussion with the parents.
“The wonderful thing about remote is that children can be involved in that capacity,” says Hunn. With in-person conferences, it’s hard to involve the kids partially because they don’t have anywhere to go while the teacher meets with just the parents.
Set Your Parent-Teacher Conference Up for Success
There are a few key ways to increase your chances of success when you start meeting with parents this year. First, treat this meeting like any other professional appointment. Create an agenda so parents know what will be discussed and what you need from them.
“Whether your district is remote, hybrid, or on-site, help parents know what to expect at the conference,” the team at ParentSquare writes. “Provide guidance and set expectations — whether on paper or online.”
You don’t want parents feeling unprepared or surprised by the topics. That won’t lead to healthy discussions where both parties feel heard. You also want the appointment to stay within your time limits, and an agenda can help with that.
Additionally, find ways to make yourself seem approachable. You want this to be a healthy discussion, not a lecture or condemnation.
Instead of sitting at your desk with parents placed in front of you at students’ desks, Jenn Larson at the Teacher Next Door suggests pulling up some chairs. She says “the desk can be viewed as a type of barrier and might feel intimidating to parents.” In fact, “sitting at a group of desks together or at a table with the same sized chairs works really well and makes it feel more like a conversation for everyone involved.”
Look for ways to make families feel welcome during the meeting too. Candra Morris, author of “Why Every Child Needs a Village for Academic Success,” encourages teachers to work with school translators to make sure there is someone in the room who can communicate with parents when there is a language barrier. Not only will this make it easier for both parties to communicate, but the parents can feel more comfortable expressing themselves and asking questions.
“I think going the extra mile to make sure that they have the support that they need is really important,” says Morris.
Even if you are meeting with native English speakers, keep in mind that you speak another language than the parents sitting across from you. Education comes with its own unique terms, many of which might confuse or intimidate some parents.
“Save the teacher lingo for your co-workers,” says teacher Brenda Tejeda, at Tejeda’s Tots. “Parents may not be familiar with acronyms, assessment names, and curriculum or educational terms. Speak in clear language and don’t assume they know what ‘Writing Workshop’ or ‘Guided Reading’ is.”
Delivering Difficult News to Parents
Not all parent-teacher conferences will go smoothly. You may have more to discuss with some parents than others and these sensitive subjects are often difficult to cover. However, you can set yourself up for success when presenting bad news to parents.
First, lean into the relationship that you already have with these parents. “Don’t wait for problems to arise,” says teacher Terri Eichholz. “Make it a point to communicate frequently and positively so that you have already developed a relationship before you hit bumps in the road.”
You don’t want parents to feel like they are getting called in for a lecture. If there is a problem every time you reach out to parents, they will start to dread your emails and calls. They might also become more defensive when you bring up issues.
Additionally, there is an art to delivering bad news, especially about highly emotional topics like children. Plan out each meeting carefully so you can ease parents into your discussion.
“You never want to jump straight into the negatives at the start of a parent teacher conference,” says Maria Kampen at Prodigy Education. “Starting with a positive story about something a student accomplished or an anecdote about how they’ve grown during the year helps build trust and collaboration with parents.”
End on a positive note. This completes the “bad news sandwich.” Come up with a few ideas for how the student can make progress and potential milestones they can hit to show their growth.
“Parents don’t want a laundry list of concerns dumped in their laps—they want to know how you’re going to fix the problem,” says teacher Nancy Barile. “Create an action plan that clearly lays out the specific steps that the teacher, the parent, and the student will need to take in order for the student to be successful.”
This action plan also makes learning a team effort. All three parties can work together to help a student overcome their weaknesses. With this formula, you can clearly address any concerns you have while creating a positive experience for parents.
Keep Parent-School Relationships Close Post-COVID
One of the few benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic and a year of remote school is the close bond that many teachers and parents formed. Many parents communicated with their kids’ teachers daily and heard them instruct their students through the computer monitor. Even as life returns to “normal,” educators are looking to keep up the close partnerships they enjoyed with parents.
“There are a lot of positives that will happen because we’ve been forced into this uncomfortable situation,” says Dan Domenech, executive director at The School Superintendents Association. “The reality is that this is going to change education forever.”
Don’t limit your engagement with parents to a few welcoming events and mid-year progress reports. Instead, look for ways to engage parents continually so they are invested in the education process and aware of what their kids are learning.
“Research has shown that parents’ involvement in their children’s learning has a greater impact on students’ test scores than parents’ education level or socioeconomic status, and that family-engagement efforts can increase children’s attendance and academic achievement,” write Stephanie Sharp and Ambika Kapur, associate program officer at the Overdeck Family Foundation and program officer within the Carnegie Corporation of New York, respectively. “But despite the research, family engagement strategies have not been widely adopted by schools or school districts.”
Even with clear communication, teachers often have an uphill battle as students return to school. Many families are suspicious of their school districts and worry about the safety of their children. This is evident in how parents reacted to school reopenings.
“A surprisingly high number of students did not immediately flock back to in-person learning when given the opportunity this spring as the pandemic’s spread slowed across the country,” says David Griffith, senior director of advocacy and government relations at ASCD. “Though the individual reasons varied… it was a powerful reminder that many families have adopted a skeptical wait-and-see approach to school reopenings.”
You likely can’t help parents overcome the distrust of entire districts, but you can form a close bond to let them know that you are an ally and an advocate for their kids.
The best way to have a successful parent-teacher conference is to make sure this isn’t the only meeting you have with families during the year. If you welcome parents in at the start of the year and build a strong partnership throughout, then these meetings don’t have to be intimidating for either party. You can approach parents with a strong existing relationship and speak frankly about the opportunities and challenges facing their children.