CLASSROOM PRACTICE: Creating Comfortable and Productive Parent/Teacher Conferences

Article excerpt

Ideally, parent/teacher conferences should be models of good communication that benefit children's learning. The reality is that these meetings are often dreaded by parents and teachers alike. Ms. Stevens and Mr. Tollafield provide a list of suggestions to help teachers plan for and participate in an experience that will be much closer to the ideal.

AFTER A LONG day at work, she rushed across town, wove her way through corridors, located the room, signed in, and waited nervously for 30 minutes. On entering the room alone and approaching the waiting group at the conference table, she felt apprehensive, overwhelmed, and outnumbered. A newcomer in an unfamiliar situation, feeling small and on trial, she sat down at the table for the conference and held her breath.

This was her first parent conference at her son's middle school. A single parent new to the community, she had come to learn about the program and how her son was doing. From across the table an unfamiliar voice called out, "What are you doing here? Your son is doing fine. I wish I had more students like him." Slowly, she exhaled and the conference began.

That conference experience actually happened to the first author. What have your conference experiences as a parent been like? Some parents recall bad experiences they had when they were in school. Some parents are immigrants and cannot read or speak English, much less understand educational jargon. Some have a child who is viewed as a troublemaker rather than as a valued student. Many parents have jobs that conflict with the hours teachers are available for conferences, or they lack a convenient means of transportation to the school. In such circumstances many parents never venture through the schoolroom door. Research tells us that more than 40% of parents never attend school programs.1 And even those who do attend, do so less frequently by the time their child reaches high school.

But there are two parties to a conference. What about the perspective of teachers? Many teachers dread parent conferences as much as parents do. For them, conferences are also stressful experiences. They may be overwhelmed by a long line of waiting parents, even as they hope to see a particular parent who does not show up. When the teacher and parent do meet, often the negative information conveyed puts both on the defensive so that no real communication occurs.

Clearly, there is something wrong with the kinds of conference experiences we've just described and the kinds of parent/teacher relationships they reflect.2 Schools should be warm and welcoming places for parents and their children. They should be open and inviting, providing the opportunity to share information and to engage in planning for the future of children. Parent conferences should be models of good communication, integrally involving parents in their child's education.

Below, we provide a 10-point parent conference checklist with questions, a number of practical ideas, and commonsense tips that can be used to create a positive climate that enhances the conference process for parents and teachers. This checklist may be a helpful gauge to determine whether your school setting has the key ingredients needed for optimal communication.

1. Invitation techniques. How does your school plan for parent/teacher conferences? How are invitations issued so that parents not only receive the message but also are encouraged to attend? Six percent of all U.S. households do not have a phone.3 Some 21% of parents are unable to read.4 How can teachers get the attention of these parents?

Teachers can invite parents to school in a number of ways. For routine conferences, public service announcements on radio or local television can be used. Neighborhood information trees and word of mouth involving influential parents, community leaders, and local organizations, agencies, and religious institutions can also help get the word out. …