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Taking Charge of the Parent-Teacher Conference

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As a superintendent, I faced the meeting with growing apprehension. I knew from experience it would be short in length, but oh so long on importance. What was this confrontation? A face-off with the board? Parents demanding curricular changes? A pivotal employee-negotiations session? No, it was a parent-teacher conference with me as the parent, encountering a teacher I did not know.

My professional training told me that the encounter should be a valuable opportunity to gain insight into my son's academic, social, and emotional development. My personal experience had taught me that parent-teacher conferences often fall short of this expectation. Despite the best intentions of excellent teachers--and in this case, my own sincere desire for meaningful information--I knew that most conferences consist primarily of reviewing a completed report card, with perhaps a computer printout of test scores to refer to. While this exercise is of some value, it gives only limited insight, most of which parents could gain at home by reviewing the same documents themselves. Teachers, in my experience as a parent (my children attend school in a district other than the one I work in), seem hesitant to take the strong, professional stance in a face-to-face meeting that I wish they would.

Teachers are, after all, experts in observing student development. They have a wonderful ability to find and share positive attributes about every child. They also know when there is good reason to be concerned and what parents need to do to help their children academically. Yet many seem timid about parent-teacher conferences. A common problem, I suspect, is that those with weak administrative support quickly learn never to confront parents about incomplete or missing home partnerships. Administrators and school districts too often have been negligent in empowering teachers to be the confident experts we desperately need in public education.

As I approached this particular parent-teacher conference, I began to consider what teachers could do to take charge of the encounter and make it more valuable. After some reflection; discussions with my wife, a middle school teacher; and gathering opinions from parents, teachers, and administrators in my district and elsewhere, I developed the following framework of essential elements teachers need to integrate into parent-teacher conferences to increase their value for themselves, the parents, and, most important, the student:

  • Identify strengths and weaknesses in the areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Being able to speak publicly, write effectively, listen thoughtfully, and read fluently are essential communication skills students need for success in school. They also are integral to self-esteem and competence as an adult. As educators we know that language development is the best predictor of school success. All teachers, at all grade levels, of all subjects are "language-arts teachers." No parent-teacher conference is complete without serious discussion about these language skills. All of them (not just reading) must be discussed, reviewed, and evaluated during every parent-teacher conference. Teachers must not hesitate to alert parents if there are problems in language development and to advise them about the serious ramifications these problems may have if not corrected.
  • Establish a clear understanding of academic areas where the student is progressing and any areas where the student is not making adequate progress. The key here, and in fact, the key to the value of the conference itself, is the word "progress." The degree of progress is at least equal in importance to a grade or mark on a report card. We know that every child develops at a different rate. Whether a student is "above grade level" or "below grade level," the amount of progress he or she is making is the information parents need to understand. The lack of progress is a serious red flag that cannot be ignored. A student who is not progressing is a student falling behind. Teachers who have instructed students for a minimum of four months should be able to talk knowledgeably about the progress of their students.
  • Provide parents with samples of work that reflect their child's progress. The value of maintaining student portfolios is particularly evident during parent-teacher conferences. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a portfolio is worth countless report cards. If we want parents to truly understand the products, the progress, and the thinking processes of children, then portfolios and anecdotal records must be used to transform educational jargon into concrete, visual examples that support and give meaning to the evaluation. Share writing samples, art work, examples of math projects, science-lab reports, and other work from throughout the grading period, as both skill and thought-process development are quite apparent with these types of samples. Consider using more sophisticated portfolios, which can include such items as video or multimedia student reports, audio or video recordings of oral reading, debates, performances, or photographs of student projects. The time spent collecting and organizing portfolios pays great dividends in assisting parents to see (perhaps for the first time) the progress or lack of progress their child is making. Combined with more traditional assessment tools, portfolios help both parents and teachers see a more complete picture of the development of the student.
  • Identify the student's participation level and contribution to group work and cooperative assignments. A student who is successful only when working independently may be ill-prepared for the real world ahead. Evidence from business and industry indicates that the most common reason for employees' losing their jobs is not a lack of skill or insufficient knowledge, but an inability to work cooperatively with others. Teachers, more than parents, are able to observe children interacting with their peers and instructors and tackling collaborative tasks. Give value to this skill by spending time during the conference with parents sharing observations on how the student approaches work with others and group activities. Identify the role or roles the student most often assumes in these types of activities. The very process of observing and recording this kind of information will make teachers more aware of critical collaborative problem-solving skills students need in the "knowledge society" they are inheriting.
  • Does the student think critically and creatively? Share examples with the parent. As educators, we understand that success in school cannot be measured strictly by the acquisition of facts or the ability to recall details for an upcoming exam. The ability to compare and contrast data, to consider and value different points of view, or to design solutions to problems is as important as the mastery of the core curriculum. Teachers have the capability to create classrooms that value and encourage students' thinking. Demonstrate to parents the importance of maintaining a "thinking classroom" by giving specific examples of their child's critical and creative thinking. Include some discussion about participation in group problem-solving and share examples of what critical and creative thinking is. When teachers include these elements in the conference, parents gain insight into their child's overall school performance that can seldom be gained in more traditional parent-teacher conferences.
  • Review the quality of the child's peer relationships for the parent. Teachers are in a unique position to observe the social development of children and the friends they are choosing. Let parents know if you have valid concerns in this area. While we may be uncomfortable placing a judgment on something as personal as selection of friends, and we need to be mindful of confidentiality restrictions, teachers still owe it to parents to tactfully share observations about the peer relationships of their child. For most students, especially as they move into the middle grades, peer influence becomes the dominate force shaping attitudes and values. To ignore this reality is unacceptable, as both the teacher and the parent have a vested interest in who the child is associating with. This element also explores the issue of potential conflict between the parent's child and other students. Parents are often the last to hear of relationship-based problems. What may seem to adults to be of minor importance can be devastating and destructive to the student if left unchecked.
  • Identify two or three growth goals for the student. Most of us perform at our best when we have goals or objectives to work toward. Curricular requirements tend to force teachers to be very goal-oriented. Identifying some growth goals for students is relatively easy to do. The difficult part is individualizing specific goals for each child. Every student, regardless of ability, will benefit from personalized growth goals. The more specific the goals, the more helpful they are to parents. Make certain parents understand the goals, the amount of time needed to accomplish them, what the teacher's and the parents' role will be in helping the student achieve them.
  • Provide specific expectations for what parents are to do at home to help. The word "expectations," rather than "requests" or "recommendations," is key here. Teachers need to be assertive and specific about what they want parents to do at home to assist the student. We do not have a right to expect the parent to be the teacher, but we do have a right to expect parents to be active partners in the learning process. Teachers know what happens to students who come from supportive, helpful homes, and what happens to those who come from homes that give only lip service to supporting teachers, or that even demonstrate hostility toward schools. There is no reason for educators to tiptoe around this reality.

    An individualized set of expectations should be given to every parent. The more specific, the greater the likelihood that they will be carried out. This is not just an exercise for parents of a low-performing students; every student will benefit by having parents at home who know what is expected of them as partners in education. (One caution: Home assignments need to be carefully thought out. Do not burden families with busywork of little value. Consider long-term tasks that support language and mathematics development, or science exploration, tasks that also strengthen the family through group discussion and activity.)

  • Take time to listen to parents. Nobody knows the child like the parent. Wise teachers understand this and seek to tap the wealth of information parents possess. The interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes, worries, and fears parents can share with teachers all represent valuable information teachers should seek. Family tensions, financial concerns, health issues, or marital problems directly affect a child's ability to concentrate in school. When parents share this information, teachers are often able to modify a child's program to reduce stress for the student. The classroom can even become (and often does) a haven for a child undergoing a period of stress. Only parents can provide these types of insight, which are needed if teachers are to teach the whole child.

One element that might appear to be missing from my list is student discipline. I've left it off specifically, because students' behavior and attitude will be revealed in the discussion of other elements. Student progress, ability to work in groups, and the selection of friends will all reflect a child's self-discipline, behavior, self-esteem, and effort.

These elements are not intended as a check list. The interpersonal dynamics of every conference and the specific needs of each student mandate that the teacher use professional judgment about the application of elements during any given conference.

The parent-teacher conference is a wonderful opportunity for both the parent and the teacher to gain important information about the child and to build a stronger bond between school and home. With these suggested approaches as a framework for discussion, and with teachers communicating from a position of professional authority and respect, parent-teacher conferences can become an investment of time that pays dividends for years to come.

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