15 Tips for Leading Productive Parent-Teacher Conferences
As teachers, we have to work hard to prepare for parent-teacher conferences. In a matter of minutes, we have to find a way to genuinely connect with parents, discuss their student’s academic progress, and how they can improve. It’s also important to explain current curriculum goals and our teaching strategies in hopes that they support them. Here are fifteen tips to set you up for success before diving into parent-teacher meetings.
1. Offer a flexible conference schedule
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. 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.
2. Prepare, prepare, prepare
Whether you teach every subject to third-graders or geometry to 200 ninth- and tenth-graders, conferences require hours of preparation. Keeping accurate and current records makes this process much easier.
It’s best to prepare:
- Test results
- Work samples
- Anecdotal notes
3. Arrange for a translator if needed, and find a way to connect
Parents who don’t speak English require a translator. Schools may need to arrange a translator — ideally not a student — so that they can effectively and respectfully communicate.
If you’re working with a translator, find a way to connect with the parent or parents despite the language barrier. Just because they can’t speak the same language or can’t speak it fluently, does not mean they aren’t incredibly intelligent and genuinely concerned about their child. Try learning a few phrases in their native language to show you’re trying to connect; even “Hello,” “How are you?” and “Thank you” can go a long way.
4. Be aware of your body language
You and your classroom should be welcoming to students and parents, and your body language is one of the first impressions visitors have when meeting you. Crossed arms, tension, intense glares, rigid posture, frustrated and fidgety movements all convey negativity that will quickly sour the mood of a conference.
It’s also very important to consider their backgrounds and how body language has different meanings in different cultures. If you’re meeting with a parent who doesn’t speak English, psychologist David Matsumoto says, “non-verbal behavior can grease communication when there is a lack of language fluency.” So if you have a parent who is from another country where they aren’t big on direct eye contact, don’t force that. Instead, connect through smiles, open posture, a nice handshake, and a warm, sincere tone.
5. Sit side-by-side
Teachers and parents are on the same team and work together to ensure children succeed in school. That conviction and mindset are advocated by the School Mediator, who advises teachers to sit next to parents rather than across from them behind a desk. By arranging the furniture in a friendly and non-threatening way, teachers express their desire to partner with each parent, which diffuses tension on both sides.
6. Share real stories and student work
Even the best teachers won’t remember all of the details they need to share with every parent. But detailed notes ensure that you’re able to share all of the pertinent information within the confines of your conference schedule.
Anecdotes are a great way to give parents insight into what’s happening in their child’s academic day. Visual examples of student work with feedback can really support your anecdotes. A flat gradebook full of scores doesn’t paint a picture of what it’s like to be a student in your class. It also doesn’t show how a particular student is engaging with the material and how you are supporting that student’s learning and growth through feedback.
You may not be able to prepare more than a couple of examples, but seeing one graded essay or project along with a homework assignment or quiz can really mean a lot to a parent. It also demonstrates how much you care about their child. It can enhance your effort to connect with each parent, getting them on board.
7. Include the positive
Each student has positive traits and potential. Share at least one shining trait with parents at the beginning and another at the end of the conference. That trait could be an academic trait or a character trait, such as helpfulness, persistence, or hard work.
A good way to present this information is through “Glows and Grows.” Share a student’s positive achievements or traits that make them glow as well as two or more areas in which they can grow. End on a high note with another glowing detail or anecdote.
8. Create clear goals
Every student, even the gifted ones, can improve in some way. Write specific goals for each student. Along with those goals, create an action plan with steps for improvement, as well as a timeline with milestones to gauge a student’s progress. Sharing this with parents can increase buy-in since they will be able to see a clear path to success that has achievable benchmarks and goals that are part of a realistic, structured plan.
9. Avoid education jargon
Not everyone is familiar with 504s, diagnostic and summative assessments, PBL, or STEAM. Don’t overwhelm parents with education lingo. Speak in plain terms, explain what you mean, and make sure everyone is clear about the path forward.
10. Give parents responsibility
According to a recent report by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, children do better in school when their parents are involved. Effective teachers involve parents by asking them to monitor homework or sign progress reports.
For students who struggle with completing homework assignments, suggest that they use a planner and that parents check it every night. Students should put their completed work right next to the items listed in their planner. This makes it easy for parents to verify and it can increase trust, accountability, and consistency.
If a student lives with one parent who has more than one job, or if both parents work late, suggest a local study center, library, or tutoring program where that student can go get help and have someone check their assignments so that a routine is created with an involved adult.
11. Encourage questions
Approachable teachers build a lasting connection with parents and promote a positive experience. You want to make sure that your students’ parents feel comfortable asking questions about their child’s academic success, friendships, and other traits. Be sure to ask parents if they have any questions at least twice during your meeting. You want to carve out time and space for them to talk so they don’t feel like they are being talked at and rushed out. Make sure they have your email address so they know they can ask you questions at any point during the school year.
12. Don’t make assumptions about parents or students
We’ve all heard the negative teacher talk about students and parents. “Oh, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with that one!” Ensure that you don’t engage in judgemental talk or make parents feel like they’re being judged while conferencing with you. View all parents as partners because, like it or not, they are. Work to make sure that even the most challenging students and parents feel like welcome teammates. Here are some strategies for difficult conversations with parents.
13. If a parent becomes hostile, don’t engage
No matter how prepared and affirming teachers are, some parents may become hostile. Some of them are used to hearing bad news, don’t trust teachers, feel a need to defend their child, or are upset about something else and take their anger out on you.
Try to remain calm and follow a few tips from the National Education Association:
- Emphasize the positive.
- Let the parents talk first.
- Use active listening. Don’t just stay quiet — really and mindfully listen.
- Discuss how both parties want what’s best for the child.
- Agree on a strategy and get on the same page before including the child in the conversation.
14. Remain professional at all times
Teaching is a challenging job and you may be tempted to stray into unprofessional or overly social territory during conferences. Several conversations or topics should never be discussed with parents or with other teachers in professional spaces, including:
- Speaking negatively about school administrators or other teachers.
- Comparing two or more students to each other.
- Discussing another student’s behavior, family, or performance.
- Blaming parents for a child’s performance or struggle.
- Making fun of students or their families.
- Arguing with parents.
- Complaining about the school or its policies.
15. Stay in contact with parents
Parents should be able to get in touch with their child’s teacher. Often, email is the most convenient way for you to receive messages and respond to parents, but phone calls or future conferences may be necessary, too. Set the guidelines and boundaries for future communications.
Google Voice allows teachers to create phone numbers that can forward to their mobile phone — without giving out their personal number. Remind is a texting service that allows teachers and schools to conveniently contact students and parents without using personal phone numbers. You can find more suggestions for online parent-teacher communication tools.
Parent-teacher conferences give both parties the chance to determine a child’s academic progress and create a plan for future success. Effective teachers plan ahead, listen to parents, and ensure each conference remains full of workable solutions that have the student’s best interest in mind.
Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.