Teaching preparatory programs miss out on a bunch of essentials. Most programs do not give all that many hints about classroom discipline, what to do when a lesson goes south, or the proper thing to say when a student needs to talk about a personal problem. New Teachers get extensive work with how to write lesson plans and how to deliver a classic lesson, but the rest of the job description is really learned through the classic process of messing up and doing it better the next time.
Perhaps the most under discussed aspect of teaching is communicating with parents. The industry pays lip service to the importance of the home-school connection, but little is done with new teachers—even veteran teachers—to help build relationships with parents. Because of the lack of training and development, the unconfident Teacher creates, at worst, an adversarial relationship. At best, the fear creates a relationship that doesn’t go beyond the numbers and curriculum of the class. Neither scenario is good for kids.
Sometimes I can look back on those moments where I did the wrong thing and laugh. I chalk up the mistakes to youth and inexperience. But, others are just flat out embarrassing. It was 13 years ago when I had a Parent-Teacher conference that I did, sadly, wear as a badge of honor for some time. Yet, looking at it now, it serves as one of the most embarrassing moments of my career.
Like most new Teachers, I was nervous when it came to Parent-Teacher Conferences. I was much younger than the people in the room and, truthfully, insecure about what I was doing with their kids during the day. So, my first few conferences, I had a line of waiting parents down the hallway. We just talked. I blabbed on about what we were doing in the class and the parents would ask questions about why we weren’t doing spelling like they did in school and everything in between. It was fine insofar that I didn’t have any real issues, but my line of waiting parents was always a good source of jokes by the veteran teachers.
As I was talking with Parents, the veteran Teachers would poke their heads in the room and say, “You have a long line out there. What are you giving away?”
I’m not sure if that was meant to be funny or if it was meant as a way of telling me to move things along, but it was embarrassing to be called out like that in front of Parents; it only led to more insecurity. After the last set of conferences of my third year of teaching, a veteran Social Studies Teacher pulled me aside. He was a nice enough guy, even if he always shook his head in disbelief at the new guy down the hall. He had some advice since he was retiring.
“Listen, kid, you have to stop talking so (expletive) long with the parents. They don’t want to (expletive) hear anything other than the grade their kid is getting. You think they want to be here all (expletive) night? Give them the grade, tell them what their kid needs to improve and move on.”
He also told me that he would eat an everything bagel right before morning conferences and something loaded with garlic before night conferences so his breath smelled and people wouldn’t want to linger too long.
I behaved the same way I always did when he gave advice. I smiled and nodded. But, the next year, I kept the talking part in mind.
I chose to forgo the eating advice.
I ran “efficient” conferences. Parents came in, told me who they were, I started with the grade their son or daughter was getting and then talked about where we were going in the curriculum.
In and out in under two minutes.
That went well for a few years until the embarrassing moment. A parent of one of my high achieving students came in to meet with me just after the first quarter. I had the typical formula.
“He is getting a 94 for the quarter, which is one of the better grades in the class considering he is transitioning from Middle School. 9th grade is a big jump. Next, we’ll be reading…”
The parent cut me off.
“Why only a 94? He always got 97’s in English.”
I sat there in disbelief that we were talking about three points. But, the real problem was that I didn’t have an answer. Why a 94 instead of a 97? What was the difference? How did I arrive at that number? I tried to deflect and talk about how a 94 is a great grade, but he wasn’t having it. Honestly, I couldn’t explain it so I got defensive.
I flipped my grade book around and said, “Here. Write in whatever grade that will make you happy. If it is about a number, don’t worry. 94, 97, there’s no difference to me.”
The Parent didn’t write the number; he actually got a bit nervous trying to explain why he was questioning it. It was awkward, but we finished up the conference somewhat amicably. The next day, I told the story in the English office. People were congratulating me for “taking a stand.” I took the adulation, but something didn’t feel right, even years after.
Here’s what didn’t feel right: I didn’t tell that parent one thing about his child. I didn’t tell him what I could do to improve his child’s already excellent performance in class. All I did was communicate that I was “the expert”, he shouldn’t question “the expert”, and he should leave it “to the expert”. It was a terrible message that came from insecurity and a myopic perspective of what it meant to be “The Teacher.”
I’d love to say that I immediately changed. While I always chatted with parents and was always about doing what was best for students, the actual communication of that was lacking. Parents liked me because their kids were happy. That was my connection with them. But, there should’ve been a whole lot more. It wasn’t until my daughter started going to school that I figured it out.
I can remember going into her Kindergarten conference and being nervous. And, even heading to fourth grade conferences where there are actually grades, I still get a bit nervous, even though I know she is doing well. There is always that thought of whether or not I was doing a good enough job as a parent.
It hit me going into her Kindergarten conference. And, I am reminded every year after. As a Parent, I don’t really care about the grade. I want to know that her teacher knows her as a person. I want to know that her Teacher knows her strengths and the things she needs to improve. I want to know that her Teacher has a plan. I want to know that she cares.
I want her to sell me some hope.
As corny as that sounds, that is a Teacher’s primary job with both students and Parents. Each day, we have to teach kids those skills we believe are necessary for success. And, we have to offer them the hope that it will all pay off. And, we have to give Parents that same hope. All Parents want their kids to succeed. It is our job to keep that hope ignited within them, even with those kids who are challenging us.
So, now, once again, I have the longest lines for Parent-Teacher conferences. This time, it is for the right reasons. Grades are given if a parent asks for them. Instead, I talk to them about what their child brings to my class. I talk about what their child contributes to the class as a person and how we are better for it. If there is a deficiency that needs to be addressed, it is addressed by offering the solution first. And, I will always conclude with a question for them. They know their kids better than anyone; why would I ignore their input?
Conference Habits That Show Parents You Are All In
Start With Something About Their Child, The Person
It sounds simple, but it is overlooked. If a parent knows that you actually care about their child, the relationship will be sound. As each parent walks in, I will start with a quick story about something their child did in class. It could be something they said or something they wrote. Really, it could be anything. The further away from academics, the better. I want to show that I know their child and that their child means a lot to our class.
For the parent of the “easy” child, this will bring another smile to their face. They have a good kid and they know it. It is always nice to hear that they are doing well when not under their supervision.
For the parent of the “not so easy” child, this will be different. After I tell them that “he works really hard and always is asking me questions about how to do better” or “he makes me laugh every day when he comes in an says…”, I am usually met with “Are you sure you are talking about my son?”
When I say that I am, there is a smile of a different kind. Maybe it was the first positive comment they heard all night. Maybe it was just nice to hear something about their child, not what their child was lacking. It definitely gives a flicker of hope and the security that their child isn’t just a number or some random kid in a class.
Most importantly, it shows that their child has a chance in my class. It shows that I know them and want them to do well.
Emphasize The Victories
Far too often, conferences turn into the “what’s missing” session. It’ll focus on missing work or skills that are lacking. While all of that has its place, every student has victories. It is important for parents to hear those, even if their child isn’t meeting with success in class. For me, I have a note pad full of notes that I make when reading their writing. This allows me to give specific examples of some of the progress they are making. This isn’t a conversation about grades. It is about how they are progressing as writers, readers, and critical thinkers.
By emphasizing the victories and having specific notes on each student, you now have credibility with the parents. You are showing that you see progress. You are showing that you are monitoring specific skills. You are giving specific examples. Unlike my embarrassing conference years ago, I am able to give specific information from the class.
You are giving parents content, not just some meaningless number. Doing that allows for the more difficult conversations.
Start With The Plan For Addressing Deficiencies
The difficult part of conferences is discussing deficiencies that must be addressed. Often, Teachers will just state them. I’ve done that plenty of times.
“He doesn’t give enough evidence in his writing.”
“He doesn’t write in complete sentences.”
“He isn’t reading the book.”
“He didn’t turn in this essay.”
All of those things are true and definitely need to be communicated. But, simply saying those things is really just complaining to the parent. And, truthfully, it is not the parents’ job to correct. It’s our job. It’s also like going to a Doctor and them telling you that you have high blood pressure and then leaving. Well, great, I have a problem; how do I fix it?
Instead, start with the solution.
“I am going to sit with him during class and work on backing up his ideas with more evidence. That’s something we will work on.”
“We are going to sit together during class or after school if he wants and work on writing complete sentences.”
“I am going to start a book discussion group so we can dive into our class reading a little more and have him read more closely.”
“I refuse to give him a pass on this assignment. We are going to meet and have him do this essay. It’s important and something he’s worked on in class.”
All of those communicate a problem, but show the parent that you, the Teacher, actually care. You have a plan and will do everything to have their child be successful. You aren’t complaining to them. You are telling them what you are going to do to fix something.
My daughter’s fourth grade Teacher did this so well earlier this year. My daughter, thankfully, is good at school. She picks things up quickly; we are lucky. But, she did have a tendency to rush through things, especially reading. That would cause her to lose some of the important details of a story. At the first conference, her teacher brought it up.
“I’m going to invite Em to our book club after school and we will work on reading carefully and learning how to read in between the lines.”
As a parent, it was refreshing to hear that my daughter’s Teacher knew her so well, knew that she had an issue, and had a plan to fix it. And, because of her plan, there is huge progress just months later. Her Teacher gave me hope that it would be fixed. I left there with confidence in her teacher and, as always, so proud of my daughter.
Finish With A Question
I always ask parents the same type of question at the end of a conference: Do you have any advice for me?
They are raising that child. They are the experts. Why not tap into that? Most of the time, you will get some really valuable insight into a student, as both a person and learner. This not only gives you that insight, but it builds a team. While I don’t expect any parent to teach any content or be on top of their child about classwork, I do want parents to know that we are on the same side and we both want the same thing. We want their child to be successful. The only way we can have that is by talking and working together.
A few years back, I asked a parent that question. Her son was doing well, but was really quiet in class. Some kids are naturally quiet and there is nothing wrong with that. But, when I asked the parent if she had any advice, she told me that her son really didn’t like working in groups. This was great information as I do quite a bit of group work. So, a few days later, I had him come early to class. Because I had this information, I was able to talk to him about why we do group work and why I believe it was important. Then, I asked him what he thought and what I could do to make it a better experience.
That conversation led to a couple of things. First, it led to us having a better relationship because I sought out his input. Second, it led to coming up with class group work norms; we set formal expectations for each member and each session, something I never thought had to be done. But, once we did, he worked better and participated more. And, honestly, the class group work ran better. All of that was because I asked for advice.
The Parent-Teacher conference is an event I now look forward to. I look forward to taking the time to talk about their child. I look forward to getting their input into how I can help their child more. I do wish I could redo that one conference 13 years ago. I wouldn’t have allowed my own insecurity to turn a conversation into a confrontation. I’ve found that even when Parents disagree with me—it happens—they respect that there is intention, a plan, and caring behind it all. Because of that, there isn’t a situation we can’t work through together.
Working it through, together, is what is best for kids.