10 Tips to Survive Parent-Teacher Conferences Successfully

It’s that time of year again, time for parent-teacher conferences.  The time of year when we have to put in extra hours to meet with parents who are checking on their child’s progress. To be honest, I never really understood a twice a year check-up.  My parents kept tabs on me daily. At least it seemed that way. They asked me every day if I had homework, what had I done in school, was there a note from the teacher, and did I have any graded work to give to them.  My teachers called home more frequently than twice a year ( I was not a model student!), and my parents were actively involved at school.

I realize that those days are from the past. I know that parents today either don’t have the time to be involved or the interest to be involved.
There are things we can do to help bridge the gap between school and home and make conferences easier and less stressful.

Throughout the school year you can:

1) Send weekly emails or letters home help to keep parents informed.
2) Postcards congratulating a student on a project or accomplishment.
and/or
3) the occasional call to update parents on their child’s behavior. 

These do take time, but in the long run they will make conferences easier.

For the actual conference, try some of these suggestions:

1) If you have sent weekly correspondence, parents are more relaxed when they come because they have made a connection with you prior to the conference. You will be relaxed because you feel like you have been keeping parents informed.  A parent that feels out of the loop until “it is too late to do anything about it” is a mad parent.
If you have kept a ‘paper trail’ the parent that has chosen to ignore correspondence from you prior to the conference will not have ‘ammunition’ to use against you at the conference.

2) Don’t make parents sit and wait with nothing to do, but watch the clock and complain. Have copies of past classroom correspondence or a new newsletter prepared and available for parents to read.  Prepare a video of student’s activities set on a loop so parents can watch. You will need to obtain written permission before taking pictures of students and spend some time preparing the video, but it is well worth it.  Our team did this. We sat up the “movie” in the hall, set out plenty of chairs. Put a small table with some inexpensive snacks in a bowl. It was a hit! It also helped to entertain siblings while they waited. Just don’t put out all the snacks at once and it is perfectly acceptable to put up a sign saying: Please enjoy these snacks, but please limit the number that you take to two per person so there will be enough for everyone.

3) During the conference have each child’s information prepared in a take home packet for the parents. Your information should also include those notes you have sent home and a phone log. Sometimes a defensive parent will ‘rattle’ you and you won’t remember your own name, let alone the times that you have called home to discuss concerns. Having it handy for your reference will make things easier for you.

4) If you are concerned about meeting with a particular parent, ask a colleague or administrator to sit in with you.  It is a good idea to have other teachers, that the child, has to join in, not to attack the parent for having a child with such horrible behaviors, but to form a team working with the parent to help their child succeed in school.  There are no lost causes. Some children just need more intervention and effort than others.  Don’t be discouraged if the conference doesn’t go well. Some parents are living in denial and will not accept that their child is not a model student. They expect their child to have perfect behavior or perfect grades (or both). Hopefully, by the end of the conference they will realize that you are not the enemy.  And, in some situations, you may have to agree to disagree.

5) The old adage 'say something positive first' works.  If you have trouble thinking of something nice (beyond your child has perfect attendance), ask the parent if they would like to start the conference, or admit that you are having trouble connecting with their child. Stress that you want to make a connection, but you are having trouble finding common ground. Ask the parent to help you by suggesting things their child likes or dislikes ways to engage their child, or interests their child has outside of school. Most parents are the expert on their child and love to be a part of the process.

6) I also send out emails asking that the student also attend. To me there is nothing better than having the child present. After all, it is their future that we are discussing. Make them a part of the process. This is part of teaching and accepting responsibility. 

7) Be professional and courteous even if a parent is not. Some parents have found parenthood overwhelming and unwelcome. This isn’t the child’s fault so don’t focus on parenting shortcomings or the child’s inability to cope. Find something besides behavioral issues or academic failure on which to focus. This may take some preparing and brainstorming with your team.  

8) Documentation is a must. Take time to jot down notes about the conferences to refresh your memory later. During the conference, make any necessary notes regarding action you need to take. For example: you promise to send home a note regarding tests prior to a test, or you promise to contact the counselor and have them contact the parent. I also kept a notepad lying beside me with a list of everything that I needed to do after conferences so I wasn’t looking through every student’s folder.

9) Will all conferences go well? No. At the end of the day, walk out knowing that you have done the right thing and don’t take it personal. Keep your administrator informed of any problems by sending them an email with documentation. Keep it short and stick to facts. If the principal needs or wants more information, they will ask for it. Keep your emotions out of it. Even when you write, remain professional.

10) Pray. I always pray that I will be able to make a connection with the parent and child. I also pray for God to guide and guard my words (since I have a tendency to say what I think!).

I wish there was a magic wish that would make parent-teacher conferences the most wonderful thing anyone had ever experienced, but beyond that, try some (or all) of these suggestions and see if they aren’t a little better.

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