Many educators dread parent teacher conferences. And it’s no wonder. The prep. Worry over parent reactions. It can be nerve-wracking, especially in one’s first years.
Parent teacher conferences, though, are gold. Believe it or not, I enjoy them now. The feedback you get is invaluable.
Parent Teacher Conferences: it’s not about us
Ever feel like you’re on trial during parent teacher conferences? Wondering if they like you? Worried they won’t respect you if you’re fresh out of school?
It’s easy to drown in self-doubt. But here’s the thing: the parent teacher conference? It’s not about us.
Not about the parent either.
It’s about the kid. And how we can pull together our collective expertise to make sure they have a great year.
When you focus on that, rather than on what they think of you, then the conversation is fruitful. And it frankly takes the pressure you to be perfect.
“They’re more scared of you than you are of them.”
You know when you were little, and the grown-ups pointed out a scary bug and said, ‘They’re more scared of you than you are of them?”
It’s like that with most parents too! Most of them are way more nervous than you are! (But they’re usually cuter than the bugs.)
This little person of theirs is their whole world. If things are going great, life is golden. If not, their hearts can plummet.
I asked a wide array of parents what they feel when they go to teacher parent conferences. The answers were illuminating and occasionally heartbreaking:
When I have a parent teacher conference I’m most worried about if I’m going to like the teacher and hope her style of teaching overlaps with my idea of what school should be (informative, fun, flexible, each child has their own style of learning and hoping the teacher is open to what each child needs). I’m also concerned with what the teacher thinks of me as a parent based on my child’s performance/behavior/personality.
[F]eedback about your child you feel more than any other type of feedback you get as a human being. Nothing is more personal than somebody’s view of how you are as a parent. And that is good and bad. The pride I feel when someone says something good about my child is like none I’ve felt before having kids. But the shame I feel if somebody implies that my parenting has not been good hurts like nothing else.
Yes I do often get nervous because I see it as a high stakes meeting. Few things are as important to me as a parent than my child’s experience at school with learning and relationships. As a parent, we have very few direct interactions with our child’s teachers and these meetings usually occur one or two times a year and are relatively brief. So to me I feel a lot of pressure to make sure that I hear about how my child is doing and understand everything, and also at the same time I feel a great sense of responsibility to be a good advocate for my child. I also have the luxury of being English speaking, well educated, and having a child who is doing well academically and not having behavioral issues. I can’t imagine all of the additional stress has put upon a parent who does not have these advantages.
Many years ago, when ____ was tiny and I was working full-time, I did get nervous at conferences. I was always worried that my child was not up to par with the other children. I guess that parents are afraid to hear any bad news about their children.
I just want the teacher to celebrate my child and see them.
I want to leave feeling like the teacher cares about my son, encourages his interests and has a plan to help address his needs.
If I’m a little nervous about anything, it’s that I want to give some criticism to the teacher or the system and I’m not sure how to share so it’s well received–usually involving wanting one of my kids to be challenged more.
Also I’m nervous that I’m going to find out something about my child that I didn’t know (something about getting a surprise message brings the feelings of loss of control or that I’m not good enough as a parent). AND that if I’d I had only known earlier on in the year, it would have been easier to handle. For example, I didn’t know ____ wasn’t comfortable with her addition facts entering 3rd grade (having them memorized) until I went to conferences and discovered she was doing “poorly” in some areas. If that issue had been assessed and addressed right away, we as a family could have worked together right away. To be given sober news, “your daughter doesn’t know her math facts” would have been easier the second week of school than late October. Good news? We worked on them at home and she had them memorized by Christmas. Easy peasy!
Reading through these the first time I had a couple of guilty stabs of, “Oh crap. I’ve been guilty of that.” It happens. We’re not perfect.
It’s important, though, to get an aerial view on the opportunities these parent teacher conferences present. Like ripping off the bandaid it can be painful. But ultimately? A good thing.
Just like Back to School Night, when we don’t worry about our own performance, everybody wins. We become more curious and less defensive.
This has the same effect on the parents.
And the result? The student’s support system is strong.
Running the conference
Sign up and Set Up
Using a free website like Sign Up Genius is a time-saver. Set it up with your school email and send yourself a link once your schedule’s created. From there, send the link to your families. Once they’re signed up, they’ll get a reminder email or text a day or two before. This results in fewer no-shows. And it takes loads of work off your plate.
If you’re conferencing in person, you can display the conference schedule outside your room, along with chairs and a quick welcome sign.
And if it makes sense to do so, put student work bins in the hallway so parents can look at their child’s work as they wait.
The length of each conference depends on your school culture and your preferences. Your district will likely set hours for you to do this.
Fifteen minutes works well. I hold my in early afternoon only, as I rely on my morning prep time.
Figure out what your comfortable with and do that.
Prepping for the Parent Teacher Conference
Invite teachers or specialists you think should be present. In most cases, you won’t need anyone. But there are times when it can make the conference more constructive.
For example, if the student is an English Language Learner, see if their ELL teacher would like to attend.
ELL teachers are godsends. They notice things the rest of us miss and are instrumental in getting a child what they need. Likewise, they can make the parent feel comfortable, particularly if they’ve worked together before.
Let the parent know ahead of time who else might be attending, so they won’t be surprised.
Have data and student examples ready to go. The easiest way to do this? Digitally.
In your Google Drive, create a folder called Students. In that, create a simple Google Doc where you prep for conferences and take notes. Create one Google Doc per student.
Make this as easy as possible. Write the date at the top, who was there, and and a few simple headings: Reading, Writing, Math, Science, Social Studies. You can add other categories like Behavior, Friends, or Specialists. Up to you.
Then under each heading, write the bare notes you need. Scores, strengths, weaknesses.
(I use this one Google Doc for the child all year for all parent conferences. It’s so helpful as a reference later on.)
Are there writing samples? Have those pulled up in your tabs. Or print them out if you’re in person.
Running the Parent Teacher Conference
Think of your classroom as your home. Invite the parent in as you would invite any guest into your home. Give them a genuine smile. (Want to shine? Read this.)
Start by talking about what you love about their kid.
This isn’t manipulation. Cause it’s a hoot talking about their personalities and the funny things they say in class. Or sharing the kind things you catch them doing. Parents’ faces light up when they see you really care about their child.
Try to sit at a round table or at least on the same side of a table. This speaks volumes about your intentions to work as a team.
Sitting behind your desk, no matter how friendly and approachable you are, literally and figuratively puts a barrier between you, which can feel off-putting.
Give them a quick overview of how the conference will go. For example,
Today I’m going to go over how ___ is doing academically and then talk about their friendships and social learning. Then you can share concerns, thoughts, or questions you might have. But if you have questions while I’m going over thing, feel free to ask.
This way, they have the lay of the land and know they’ll get a chance to share their thoughts and questions.
Being truthful and straightforward is important. But kindness is key.
The student might look like an ordinary nine or ten-year old. But they were a baby not too long ago, and the parents love that little one to pieces. Present the information in a way you’d want it to be presented to you about your favorite person.
____’s reading comprehension is a little below grade level. I have a plan to help them with it, but I’d love to hear your input. What does their reading look like at home? Do they avoid it? What are your thoughts?
Again, you’re working with the parent as a team. You don’t have all the answers and they don’t either.
Let them know that you will be proactive, but that you’d value their input, because they are, after all, experts on their children. Their ideas can make helping the student easier.
This is key. Listen to parents.
If they are frustrated with something that is going on in the classroom, let them share without interruption. It can be difficult not to feel defensive.
But when your body language is relaxed and says “I hear you,” you can work out solutions together.
Ask lots of clarifying questions so you can better understand where they’re coming from. Then work toward a solution together.
You will undoubtedly make mistakes. As you well know — and many parents don’t realize — if we actually did every single thing we were supposed to, we wouldn’t go home. That’s no hyperbole, is it? We have to make the best call we can at every turn and hope we made the right choice. And the longer we do this, the better our instincts for making the right call. But things will fall through the cracks.
But in tampering down our naturally defensive nature, we don’t need to be self-effacing either. So some simple genuine replies might be the following:
No wonder you’re upset. Yes, I can see how when I ____ (or didn’t ____), it felt like _____________. I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intent to make you feel ____. But I really appreciate your sharing that with me.
And then talk about how you will both move forward.
What if a parent loses control?
This is rare. But thinking now about what will happen if a parent becomes angry or abusive is a smart move for your peace of mind.
Often, just listening calmly will do the trick. People can get heated up when they feel unheard or when they feel their child isn’t being protected or championed.
When listening has zero effect, though, you’ll need to move in a different direction.
If a parent states or hints that you are hurting their child in any way, stop the meeting. Have your principal come or ask that they reschedule with your principal present. A third party can de-escalate things quickly.
Try not to beat yourself up about this. We’ve all had to ask for help. It comes with the job.
If you feel physically threatened, walk out of the room and go to the front office. You can apologize later if you misread the signals. But keep yourself safe.
Again, it’s unlikely to happen. But it’s comforting to know exactly what you’d do in that situation. You know where the parameters lay.
This is also where your neighboring teachers can help. If you hear anything concerning coming from a neighboring classroom, check on them. If the teacher needs help, stop everything and get it. They will do the same for you. When you’ve built this trust with your colleagues, it adds one more layer to your confidence.
Hitting it out of the park
You know you’ll be hitting it out of the park at your parent teacher conferences when you can check all the following off:
The parent feels that I
- have their child’s best interest at heart
- get their child
- don’t judge them
- have empathy for any difficult situations
- am approachable. I won’t get defensive.
- am flexible in creating solutions that meet the needs of their child.
- include them in helping their child succeed. (But they don’t feel like it’s all falling on their shoulders.)
- will help their child succeed
Try some of these methods and see if you have more fun and are more relaxed at your next Parent Teacher Conferences!
Now It’s Your Turn!
Tell us in the comments below:
- What’s one thing about parent teacher conferences that makes you nervous?
- OR … Do you have your own tricks to knocking it out of the park?
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