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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Don’t Treat Parent-Teacher Conferences ‘Like Trips to the Dentist’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 26, 2019 19 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective ways to handle parent/teacher conferences?

Part One highlighted responses from Luz Santana, Leticia Skae, Mandi White, Tara Dale, Sanée Bell, PJ Caposey, and Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Luz, Leticia, and Tara on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two included commentaries from Jenny Edwards, Dr. Beth Gotcher, Sherri Wilson, Katy Ridnouer, Ryan Huels, Tara Brown, and Sarah Thomas.

Today, Beth Brady, Carol Pelletier Radford, Rich Czyz, Robert Ward, Jennifer Abrams, and Barbara R. Blackburn share their thoughts. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Beth Brady

Beth Brady has taught in the Northampton public schools in Massachusetts for 26 years, initially as a 1st grade teacher, then 2nd grade, and currently as a math interventionist and Math Recovery Champion for the district. She graduated in July 2018 with her second master’s from Mt. Holyoke College in the master of arts in mathematics teaching:

All that parents want to know is: “Do you know my child? Do you like my child?”

So be prepared for each conference! Do not greet caregivers at the door and lead them to an empty table with no evidence of their child’s work.

Prior to the conferences, think about each student. Take notes on one piece of paper that can become your Conference Recording Sheet. When you’re done with conferences, it can go into your portfolio on each student. Take care of it in small pieces. For example, work on your Monday conferences first, then Tuesday’s, etc.

Make sure to start your conference by greeting each caregiver with a firm handshake, eye contact, and a smile. Be conscious about where you’re having the parents sit. If you are in a comfortable office chair, you should offer them comfortable chairs as well. Make sure to provide them with grown-up-sized chairs! Many parents cannot sit in student-sized chairs. If they have to sit in a stiff chair, so should you.

You want them to know that you consider them to be on the same plane as you. They are important members of their child’s team along with you. Pay attention to the subtle details that may seem trivial but are actually pretty important to the vibe of the conference. For some of the caregivers, school was never a pleasant experience for them, and we want to change that perception!

After you’re seated, start by saying something specific that you appreciate about their child. You must find something that you can start with that lets them know that you like their child. It means a lot to them. If you can giggle together about something endearing about their child, it gets you off on the right foot. If you can’t think of anything right away, when you’re thinking about the student academically or as they are within the classroom, keep this in the back of your mind (“What do I like about this student? What makes him/her special?”) and you’ll think of the perfect thing to say!

Write your notes for each child on your Conference Recording Sheet that you’ve designed ahead of time (see example). Think about the student’s academic performance in all subjects you teach like math, reading, writing, social studies, science. If you find yourself reporting on similar items, make a checklist or things to circle (Yes! Not yet) to save yourself time. Think about the things that are most important to you and your curriculum, for example, the benchmarks for that time of year and looking forward to the end of the year expectations. What are your goals for their child? Record your thoughts.

Also think about the child’s ability to be in the classroom. Talk about the student’s behavior as it relates to what your expectations are for them to be a citizen within your classroom. I love Responsive Classroom and I list out their C.A.R.E.S.: Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility (and Respect), Empathy, Self-control. Think about each child as they relate to each of those elements. Parents want to know if you are paying attention to these sorts of things. They want to know if you like their child.

It is important to be honest but extremely tactful. Do not candy-coat things that are important and need to be discussed for the good of this child’s ability to be a responsible citizen now and in the future. Think ahead of time of possible touchy subjects and how you can approach the child’s parents about them. Will you need to have the principal or a co-teacher present during some conferences?

It is important to know as much as you can about your students’ home lives so you can best support them. You are an important advocate for each and every student! Get advice from experts in your building like the guidance counselor, principal, psychologist, or other trusted colleague if you’re not sure how to handle something. Remember that everything you discuss must remain confidential, but don’t feel alone—don’t be afraid to reach out if you need help.

You need to get parents on your side by seeing yourself as a member of a team in this child’s timeline. You must not waste opportunities to build rapport or help parents understand that it is crucial that they support your work with their child. Caregivers must understand their responsibilities as well. If your communication with them is clear, concise, and knowledgeable and curriculum-based, then you and your students’ caregivers are now members of an important team in this child’s timeline and history.

Payoffs for doing all of this work:

  1. You’ve done a lot of work to be ready to write report cards!
  2. Your students’ caregivers trust you with their child.

Response From Carol Pelletier Radford

Carol Pelletier Radford, Ed.D., brings more than 40 years of experience to education as a teacher and teacher educator. Ideas for communicating with parents effectively are available in Carol’s two books; Mentoring in Action: Guiding, Sharing, And Reflecting With Novice Teachers and The First Years Matter: Becoming an Effective Teacher. Visit MentoringinAction.com to learn about her online courses, books, and free resources:

As a classroom teacher, I dreaded parent-teacher conferences. I wasn’t sure what to do or say and felt the parents may end up criticizing me for not teaching effectively. I also knew there were students who were “doing well” and those conferences would be easy. Then there were the students who struggled and were failing. I didn’t know how to deliver the bad news to their parents. Parents of the students who were doing well always attended conferences. How could I get my struggling students’ parents to show up? Here are three of the strategies I used.

1. LET PARENTS KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON IN SCHOOL—Let students take the lead in sharing what they are learning in school. Online newsletters, videos of project presentations, and updates about coming deadlines are easy ways to get students involved. I discovered that some of my parents were nervous about coming to conferences, because they didn’t understand the curriculum and didn’t know what to ask. By receiving updates about school curriculum, they said they felt more comfortable about attending a conference.

2. GIVE COMPLIMENTS TO EVERY STUDENT—The script may be very simple, “This is an official compliment phone call from Mrs. Jones. I am calling to let you know that Susan successfully presented her project to the class today. Her content was well organized, and she spoke clearly. She is a pleasure to have in class.”

I remember the first compliment call I ever made. The parent was shocked because he usually just received misbehavior phone calls from the teacher! When it was time to meet at parent conferences in the spring, he attended because he said he felt more comfortable because he knew his daughter was doing something well!

3. WRITE POSITIVE POSTCARDS OFTEN—Address these to the parents. Your son/daughter deserves praise from you for _____________ (behavior or school success) today. Give postcards to students who need an extra positive push or to highlight a specific behavior you want to reinforce. You can’t give too many positive postcards!

Many parents explained to me that they were nervous about coming in to school because they didn’t understand the curriculum and had bad experiences in their school days. They appreciated the positive postcards and compliments because these messages demonstrated their child was doing something well.

We all want what is best for our students. Getting parents to feel comfortable attending conferences is an important step in parent-teacher collaboration.

Enjoy your conferences!

Response From Rich Czyz

Rich Czyz is the author of The Four O’Clock Faculty: A ROGUE Guide to Revolutionizing Professional Development and co-founder of the Four O’Clock Faculty Blog. He is currently an elementary principal in New Jersey and is a former 5th grade and basic-skills math teacher as well as a curriculum supervisor and director of curriculum & instruction. Rich is passionate about engaging all stakeholders in meaningful and relevant learning opportunities:

The parent-teacher conference is one of our biggest opportunities as educators, and unfortunately, also one of our most squandered. I’ve seen both teachers and parents who treat parent conferences like a trip to the dentist. It doesn’t have to be that way! Educators often serve only as a gradebook keeper, missing the chance to really connect with parents and establish a positive relationship for the rest of the year.

Try these strategies for improving parent/teacher conferences:

  1. Start by allowing parents to set the tone of the meeting. Let them talk about how they feel their child is doing. Listen to what they have to say about their child and encourage them to share their hopes and concerns for their child.

  2. Relinquish your expert status and recognize parents as experts on their own children. I’ve seen way too many teachers who assume that they know a child better than parents do. They may often assume the worst about parents or that they know exactly what is best for a child. Remember that a parent may see things that you don’t as a teacher. They may know what that one thing that will help you engage their child.

  3. Understand the parents as human beings. Be compassionate and empathetic. Every parent is trying to do their best for his or her own child. When sitting at the table across from parents, take a moment to walk in their shoes. Don’t just listen to respond but try to really listen to understand. Everyone may have a different perspective on a situation. It is your job to understand each of those perspectives.

  4. Allow the meeting to focus on how the child is doing overall, while trying to decrease the role of data. While data can often be the easiest way to share information about a child, it might not tell the whole story. Don’t focus on the grades or the reading level. Tell a parent what makes his or her child successful. Explain the child’s strengths as you see them and let them know what may help the child to become a better learner. You are so much more than a gradebook keeper!

  5. Finally, give parents hope as they exit. Parents don’t want to leave the meeting dejected and distraught from what you said about their child. Make it a conversation and end that conversation on the most positive of positive notes. Let the parents know that you will do everything you can do to help the student. Ask what you can do in order to help. Give the parents something positive to work on or grow on.

Response From Robert Ward

Robert Ward is currently enjoying his 26th year teaching middle school English in Los Angeles and is the author of four books for teachers and parents. In addition to his award-winning Rewarding Education blog, Robert’s articles are regularly featured in Edutopia, KQED In the Classroom, Education Week, ASCD, NCTE, and the U.S. Department of Education’s “The Teacher’s Edition” newsletter. Interact with Robert on Twitter @RewardingEdu and at misterward@sbcglobal.net:

With so much talk today about the importance of mindsets in education, one of the best ways to prepare for a successful parent/teacher conference is for the teacher to enter into those meetings with a positive attitude about how much responsibility each parent bears for the actions and accomplishments of their child. Through decades of experience, I’ve learned that teacher’s pets and teacher’s pests are formed by many factors and that the apple sometimes falls quite far from the tree.

Many teachers leap to blame parents for the antics, apathy, and academic shortcomings of their students—and I was one of them. However, I now have the advantage of a broad perspective because I worked at my first school for over 20 years. In that time, I frequently taught entire families, all the siblings and all the cousins, as well as much of the neighborhood.

Where once I gave certain parents full credit for the awesome achievements and model behavior of their child, there were times when I was forced to reconsider their parental prowess. When the younger siblings of these stellar students would come along years later, I could not wait to have them in my class!

Yet sometimes these new students proved to be the antithesis of their prized older sibling who came before. I would privately wonder: “What happened? Where did this little terror come from?” You see, I had assumed that great parents always produced great kids.

Likewise, I have had too many nightmare students whose younger siblings I later greeted with dread because I figured they would be carbon copies of their infamous older siblings and would be directly influenced by the same lousy parenting.

Yet very often these children ended up displaying none of their older sibling’s bad habits or academic deficiencies. Some were even remarkably spectacular! It seemed some kids either overcame their poor parental influence or else (could it be?) their parents were not nearly as ineffective and culpable as I had once presumed.

I now acknowledge how much concerted effort the job of nurturing and educating children really entails. Whether congratulations, compassion, or commiseration is in order for a teacher or a parent largely depends on the elusive alchemy that exists between an adult’s intention and a child’s cooperation. Because successfully rearing and teaching children is never a one-sided affair; those who truly see the big picture are never quick to judge any party, neither adult nor child, neither parent nor teacher.

I now know that parents are neither entirely to blame for the worst their children offer, nor can they take full credit for the best their children offer. Similarly, I know that teachers cannot be held solely accountable for every single student action or outcome—negative or positive.

Even in the best of circumstances, appropriately shepherding and setting free a child’s heart, hopes, mind, and manners can be daunting at times. Yet it can be done, all while replacing condemnation with confidence, confusion with clarity, and conflict with collaboration—and this mutual trust and effort holds true for students, parents, and teachers alike.

I encourage you to go into your next parent meeting embracing a mindset devoid of blame and with a focus on strategies and solutions that help every child move forward and to realize their full potential.

Response From Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams is an educational consultant and author of several books including Hard Conversations Unpacked: the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs. Jennifer@jenniferabrams.com or @jenniferabrams:

Parent-teacher conferences can be a stressful experience for some educators, especially if they have something to share that might be difficult to hear. In my work on having hard conversations, I speak of being both humane and growth-producing when giving feedback. If you are planning for a parent-teacher conference you anticipate will be challenging, here are a few key tips to keep it collaborative and supportive.

1) Acknowledge that while you need to share a concern, you are there to support the student. You want to share the concern because you want the student to be as successful as he or she can be and you want the parent to know about the concern so you can work together to help the student be happy, healthy, and successful in school. Starting with an intention and respect for the student is essential.

And watch out for the “kiss me kiss me, kick me” idea. The student is wonderful and more wonderful BUT ... is actually a disrespectful way to begin. Authentic acknowledgement of the student’s positive attributes and the purpose of the conversation need not go on sentence after sentence. Be sincere and set the stage and then move to the concern. Do not use the words “but” or “however” as they negate everything you just shared. The word “and” is best.

2) Once you have factually shared the concern, the main hope is that the conversation can be a dialogue in which all parties can move forward. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue and request and suggest actions from you, from the parent, and from the student. Putting things out there as a “Here’s what we could do moving forward. I will start with what I can do first,” is an excellent first step. Then request realistic actions from the parent and actions from the student. Making this a collaborative dialogue has a greater chance that you will move forward together.

3) Finish the initial part of the conversation by making sure you have been clear and then ask for assistance. Phrases such as, “Does that seem doable from your perspective?” “What insights do you have that could help me understand how to work with him more effectively?” or “What can we do together to help him?” keep the conversation supportive and respectful.

Parent-teacher conferences are stress-producing, but with these few strategies they are perhaps a little less challenging for all.

Response From Barbara R. Blackburn

Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn, ranked #4 in the Top 30 Global Gurus in Education, is the author of 18 books on rigor, motivation, instruction, and leadership. She regularly collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. She can be reached through her website, www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

First, I think it is important to think about how we view parent/teacher relationships. Too often, we tell parents what we need them to do to help us and we answer their questions. A friend of mine suggests thinking about the relationship like a bank; we need to make a deposit before we make a withdrawal. In other words, invest in parents and their views first, before we ask for something.

I like to ask parents (either via phone, email, or in person), “If this was your son or daughter’s best year in school, what would that be like?” You learn a lot about their views of their children and of school. You can also ask them to write you a letter or email answering that question with their children. Throughout the year, in each conversation, I start with, “What would you like me to know today?” before I start my agenda. Once again, this gives parents the opportunity to give me input, and by listening to them first, I can often learn something that will shape my points.

Finally, I finish each parent/teacher encounter with two items: an agreed upon list of next steps for each person (teacher, parent, student, etc.) and an opportunity for parents to provide feedback to you. This part can occur while ending the conference, or it can be a follow-up via phone or email if you prefer. I usually ask open-ended questions such as, “Is there information I did not share that you would like?,” “Is there anything else you would like me to know?,” or “Is there any other help I can provide so we can ensure your child is successful?”

Responses From Readers

Michael Waters:

Be prepared: Ask your colleagues for insight, read the whole file, look for work samples that illuminate your concerns, and listen to parents

Phillip Taylor:

I think it is most important for such conferences to be facilitated. Unfortunately, it is rare for teachers or administrators to have much expertise in facilitation or to recognize the importance of facilitation in meetings with adults. With all the strong emotions present, the parent/teacher conference often requires a high level of facilitation competence to ensure the parent/teacher conference goes well.

I’ve had quite a bit of training in the area of facilitation and I can point to one process that is commonly known and used in schools that can be helpful and should be brought to bear on the parent/teacher conference: the Circle. IIRP uses circles as a facilitation process for restorative practices to develop communities and restore harm. With a little expertise, this process can be “tweaked” to ensure a much more positive outcome for parent/teacher conferences. Thus, I recommend seeking out your resident RP or “circle expert” on campus to facilitate your next “thorny” parent/teacher conference to ensure a more positive outcome.

I don’t think that the parent/teacher conference needs to be facilitated in this format necessarily, but I do think strong facilitation expertise needs to be brought to the table in schools around parent/teacher conferences, since, more often than not, a lack of expertise in the area of facilitation seems to be the cause of a lot of wasted time, or even harmful experiences, at parent/teacher conferences.

Thanks to Beth, Carol, Rich, Robert, Jennifer, and Barbara, and to readers, for their contributions!

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