9 Ways to Reinvent the Parent-Teacher Conference
Don’t wait for parents to come to you. Initiate contact with them in a positive, supportive, collegial way.
The teacher-parent conference is an integral part of the relationship between home and school. The positive relationship, in turn, serves to enhance the child’s motivation and desire to succeed. Here are my best strategies for making the conference work for parents and teachers.
- Send a form to parents before a teacher-parent conference, asking for their concerns or questions. This form can be used to establish an agenda for the session: “Welcome, Mrs. Bacon. Today we should discuss Brad’s plans for the science fair, his homework difficulties, and his spelling progress.” By setting an agenda, the meeting is more likely to be productive and focused. Always make an effort to begin and end the meeting on a positive note.
- Set a goal for each meeting, and do your best to meet it by the end of the session. “Mrs. Handel will agree to have Jack’s prescription glasses reevaluated.” “Mr. Bruce will agree to have the language therapist do an evaluation.”
- I advise teachers to begin the meeting with a positive comment that reflects your personal, individual knowledge of the child. “Max is so excited about going to the Red Sox game this weekend,” or “Sherry tells me that you folks have a new dog. We just bought a Dalmatian last week.” An upbeat beginning is particularly important if you anticipate that the meeting may be difficult
- Be sure to place a Conference in Progress—Please Do Not Disturb sign on the door. This prevents disruptions and communicates to the parent that the meeting is a priority for you, and you take it seriously.
Focus the discussion on behaviors and performances that can be changed. Complaining to the parent about the child’s learning problem is unproductive. In my first year as a teacher, I had a conference with a father of a child with severe attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). For the first 10 minutes of the discussion, I outlined in detail the child’s hyperactivity, his inability to stay in his seat, and his disruptive behavior. After sitting patiently for a while, the understanding dad said, “Rick, I sent you a kid with ADD, and you are complaining he moves around too much. That would be like if I sent you a kid with a broken foot, and you complained that he limped.” Point taken. Note to self: Avoid complaining to parents about things that can’t be changed.
Parent-teacher meetings, by definition, involve complex and sensitive issues. As a result, even a well-planned meeting may become contentious and difficult. This is particularly true when the teacher delivers bad or troubling news. One way to prevent a difficult meeting is to avoid surprising or blindsiding the parent. If you feel that a child may fail a course, be recommended for grade retention, or require extensive testing, avoid dropping that bomb suddenly at a meeting. If a parent is shocked by such news, the teacher didn’t do an adequate job of preparing the parent. The issue should have been mentioned as a possibility in previous discussions.
- If you anticipate a difficult conference, solicit advice from the school’s counselors. You may wish to role-play and rehearse the meeting with a colleague, or request that a supervisor join the meeting.
- Approach the meeting positively and try not to appear anxious. Bring written notes if this would make you more comfortable, and do not hesitate to take careful notes throughout the discussion. In the past, I have offered to give the parent a copy of my notes to ensure that we both fully understood the proceedings and outcome of the meeting.
- Avoid using highly charged, emotional words—“cheating,” “lying,” “stealing,” “rude.” The parent will remember them and separate them from the context in which they originally appeared. Measure your words carefully. When our son Dan was in fourth grade, his teacher began our parent-teacher conference by saying that Dan was “very belligerent.” Dan was (and is) a very sweet and respectful person, and we were greatly surprised by this comment. Fortunately, I pursued this comment further and asked the teacher what he meant by “belligerent.”
“You know,” he responded, “he squirms in his seat a lot.”
“But that’s not what ‘belligerent’ means,” I explained.
“Belligerent means rude, disrespectful, and discourteous.”
“Oh, no!” the teacher replied. “Danny is very polite and respectful. I guess I have been using the wrong word.”
I wondered how many of his students’ parents had punished their kids over the years because of this teacher’s vocabulary weaknesses.
- After a contentious meeting, contact all parties soon to arrange for a follow-up meeting to ensure that the agreed-upon steps are being taken. Call or email the parents and thank them for participating in the meeting, and comment positively on a specific suggestion or recommendation that they may have made. Look for opportunities to communicate positive news to them.
Don’t Forget Kodak Moments
What a pleasant experience for parents to receive a positive, upbeat message from a teacher reflecting the teacher’s support for the child.
When I served as director of a residential school for students with special needs, I encountered a situation where a student showed unusual warmth and empathy. Aaron was nine years old, and he fostered his reputation as a tough guy. He seldom showed his classmates his sensitive side.
One day, he was missing from lunch, and I began searching for him. I entered his science class and found him huddled on the floor holding the class guinea pig gently in his arms. The animal had been sick for several days, and the students were concerned about her. Aaron was stroking the guinea pig’s fur and softly singing an Irish lullaby to her. When I entered the room, he looked up at me sheepishly.
I was impressed and touched by this, and I knew his mom would have enjoyed seeing what I had been privileged to see, so I wrote her a note. It began, “You missed a Kodak moment today…,” and I went on to describe the incident.
Aaron’s mother called me the day my note arrived. She sent copies to all of Aaron’s relatives, and displayed the note on the refrigerator. She was extraordinarily grateful. It served to strengthen the relationship that I had with her.
From The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning on the Tuned-Out Child, by Richard Lavoie. Copyright 2007. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.