Every year I have dreaded it…although sometimes it hasn’t even happened. Sometimes I can take one look at the parent, and I can tell where the conference is headed. Other times, it comes without warning like an erupting volcano! What can happen during a parent-teacher conference that could be unsettling, you ask? After thirty-plus years of conferencing with parents, I’m guessing that I’ve already had the worst happen.
I don’t want to scare you, but it’s only fair that I warn you about what COULD happen…but what probably WON’T. Here are the top five ways a parent-teacher conference can go south!
- You have done absolutely nothing, but the parent comes in with an axe to grind because they are carrying baggage from THEIR school days.
- The parents say their child doesn’t like school (or your class). And it must be because of YOU, of course.
- The parent knows more than you do because…they are an educator, too, OR they have raised seven kids (they are an expert), OR because the last 5th grade teacher did it THIS WAY, so you must not be doing it right.
- Your methods are unfair.
- You don’t understand Junior’s unique and special needs–He is either gifted or misunderstood and they can fill you in on how to handle the whole situation.
WOW! Sounds rather frightening, doesn’t it? The problem is, you don’t know which parent(s) it’s going to be. Some years, everyone will be pleasant and agreeable. But in the unfortunate instance that someone becomes hostile, here’s what you do:
- Try staying calm and just listen to their thoughts. Reassure the parent that you want the best for their child. You don’t have to agree with them that you are the worst teacher in the school.
- Write down their concerns. They will feel validated. Then try to come to an agreement about what you can do to address those concerns.
- Do NOT return harsh words in response to their ill temper. Stay in control at all times. If they cannot speak peacefully, STAND UP, then tell them that you wish to continue this conference with an administrator present. If they refuse to leave, step into the hall where other parents/teachers are present. Do not continue the conference while they are angry.
- Call the office if necessary and ask for assistance.
Whatever you do, do not let the ne’er-do-well parent convince you that you are a terrible teacher. I have cried multiple times over parents who have insulted me. The problem probably has less to do with you than it does with something else that is going on in their own life at that moment. It may be a lost job, an ill parent, a stressful marriage, or as I said before…they may simply be carrying baggage from their own school days.
I had a parent begin aggressively with me at a conference, only to break down in tears part of the way through. I have had a parent who said “I know you never give A’s to anyone in biology!” That was totally false…a case of mistaken identity, I countered. Sometimes parents are just plain WRONG. The really hard part of this is that you have to be able to put what the parent has said behind you when you face their child the next day. Be sure that parents with caustic tongues are likely talking the same way to their children at home. How sad! You need to be the bright spot in that child’s day!
Whatever the case, rest assured that most parents respect teachers and just want to find out how their children are doing. Many work outside the home and are tired when they come to conferences (if they are held in the evening). They just hope to hear something positive. Remember, “a soft answer turns away wrath.” Proverbs 15:1
Hope for the best and use your good judgment. You can handle it!
If you read my previous post here, you should have all your materials prepared in advance of the day of conferences. If you’ve waited until the last minute, be sure to have at least something to give the parents–perhaps my teacher checklist here if you teach in the elementary grades. This form can be altered for junior high students, but it really doesn’t apply to the high school environment.
When you are ready to actually conduct the conference, here’s what you need to do IN THIS ORDER:
- Greet the parent(s)–If you are seated, stand up and extend your hand. If you must walk to your classroom door, invite them in with a smile on your face–even if you know it will be a difficult conference, control the urge to let it show on your face!
- Invite the parent to sit down. Traditionally it is suggested that you do not conduct a conference at your desk and that it should take place in a neutral zone such as a classroom table. Nevertheless, I have never held to that rule. Who made the rule? I don’t know. I have generally met at my desk where all my supplies are. It makes sense to me. You can do as you wish and I doubt that it will change anything. I have been on both sides of the “desk” as both parent and teacher. It has made no difference to me where we have met.
- BE PREPARED WITH YOUR MATERIALS. You should have the schedule right before you, and the file (elementary) or the handouts (junior high/high school) that you are going to share with the parents.
- Begin on a positive note. Decide ahead of time three positive things you are going to say about “Junior.” I remember my first year saying, “I enjoy having XXXX in class!” His mother looked at my doubtfully and said, “No one has said that to me since second grade.” I was the 6th grade teacher. Junior’s parent may be frustrated and discouraged if all she/he ever hears is how he doesn’t measure up. Go with mercy and grace in this situation!
- Gently and with mercy deliver your information. If the student is outstanding…wonderful! The parent will be encouraged. If the student is a challenge…tread carefully. I have learned that to give a student a D is like pinning a note to the parent’s shirt that reads “I got a D in reading.” Provide documentation of any areas a student is struggling in. Do not give vague generalities such as “Junior is having trouble with reading.” What do you mean, exactly? Show papers that Junior has completed. Provide evidence that the parents can take home and review.
- Quickly follow up with what YOU–THE PAID PROFESSIONAL–are going to do about it. Give concrete steps–at least three. Example: Junior seems to have difficulty with multiplication facts. Here are some things I AM PLANNING TO DO AS HIS TEACHER.” a. I will give him a quick one minute speed drill three days a week. b. I will monitor and record his success on this paper. (show paper) c. I will contact you in two weeks to let you know how he is progressing. Do not put the responsibility of “fixing” Junior’s math problem on the parents. They may be willing to help you or support you in your work, but likely they are not going to fix it at home.
- Let the parent express their concerns. Everyone wants a chance to be heard. Lend a listening ear.
- Give the parent HOPE. You’ve got this! You’re with Junior every day of the week. Agree upon an action plan. Make notes during the conference and then follow through.
- STAND UP WHEN YOU ARE FINISHED. If you do not make the first move, the parent may not either. You might run over the conference time by 10 minutes or more. Then everyone is out-of-whack and tempers flare. If more time is needed, offer to schedule an additional conference at a later date.
- Give parents all documents you wish them to have and walk them to the door if appropriate. Thank them for coming and move on to the next conference.
For your reassurance, most conferences go well. In the event that a parent is a ne’er-do-well, then you go to plan B which will follow in the next blog, “WHEN THE PARENT-TEACHER CONFERENCE GOES SOUTH!”
Parent-teacher conferences can be intimidating for new teachers. I remember well my first parent-teacher conferences. I was excited to meet the parents, but had never been instructed as to what was actually supposed to take place. I noticed other teachers getting materials ready, but I wasn’t sure what materials they were gathering. I did have standardized test results from fall testing, but I didn’t really know how to use them at that point in my career. I had failed to collect work samples, and I didn’t have any anecdotal records. I was flying by the seat of my pants, and I had no frame of reference for what I should be doing to prepare.
If your parent-teacher conferences are coming up soon, here are some materials that you should prepare in advance to give you confidence in yourself and allow you to display your professionalism to parents.
- A list of the appointments scheduled–in order–with both parents’ and students’ names listed alongside appointment times. Children do not always have the same last name as the parent. Heads up! Keep it out on your desk/table during all conferences.
- A clock where you can see it at all times. Parents who run over their allotted times often anger others who are kept waiting. You must be in charge of the time unless the school sounds a bell or tone to signal the start/end of the conference.
- Folders of student work samples–in separate folders, marked with the student’s name, stacked in the same order of the conference schedule
- A pad of paper/notebook that you can make notes in. If the parents request that you move Jimmy’s seat, write it down. Because there are so many conferences, you may forget who asked to have their child’s seat moved. This reassures parents that you will act upon their request.
- A seating chart or student desks that are labeled with the students’ names. One year we had changed desks ON THE DAY OF CONFERENCES! A parent asked to see “Becky’s” desk. We opened every single desk and could not find Becky’s things. I was totally embarrassed.
- Standardized test scores if applicable in the student’s folder.
- A checklist like the one here. Should the conversation begin to lag, you will have student behaviors to reference.
- Any anecdotal records you have kept. For example, you may need to reference documented student behaviors to support your claim that Toby has been having trouble getting along with others on the playground.
- A recent student report card or the grade for the particular class you teach
- Your grade book–electronic or hard copy
Now let’s suppose in the flurry of activity at the beginning of the school year, it never occurred to you to keep student work or anecdotal records. If you have even one week before conference, collect work samples now. Between now and conference day collect the following work samples:
- Writing sample–Information can be gleaned about spelling, punctuation, penmanship, and ability to express oneself in writing
- Math homework–whatever topic you are currently working on, get a sample of the student’s work; Is the student struggling with addition facts, multiplication, word problems, etc. ?
- Reading comprehension evidence–worksheets from science, social studies, or reading class will suffice
- A sample of his/her best work; a sample of work that could use improvement
How can I get all this, you ask? Start Monday morning. Set aside a few minutes of class time to gather this data. You do not want to come up empty handed on conference day! Even if you do not have enough time to go over all the information you have collected, you will be well-prepared for the task at hand. This will speak volumes to parents!
In my next post I will discuss how to conduct the actual conference and some issues that often arise. YOU CAN DO THIS! Start preparing now!