10 Tips for Smooth Sailing Parent Teacher Conferences

It's conference week for us, so things are busy around here!  Report cards are being printed, schedules are being finalized, and the PTA is organizing treats to help us get through the long hours we all work.

I know a lot of teachers dread conferences, but I have to admit that I love this time of year.  Not only does it provide a lot of valuable insight to students, it is also one more time to build positive rapport with the parents of my students, which is essential to student success.  I remember my first year of teaching, frantically googling for tips and tricks for parent teacher conferences the night before they began.  I had the most amazing student teaching experience that included two sets of conferences, but there is something different, something much more intimidating about being on your own!  There are a few things I have learned along the way that have helped me hold successful and productive conferences.

*Updated October 1, 2014!

I will never forget the 20 minute conference for my step-daughter that included no time for questions, no time for discussion, and no time for parent input.  When the 20 minutes of her talking was over, we were told she had another parent following us, and if we wanted to discuss anything further, we could set up a separate time. Wait, what?

I always start off the conference with “What questions do you have for me?  I want to make sure we make this time together valuable.”  I have found that parents really appreciate starting the conference by opening up the floor to them.  It is my belief that if a parent is coming in with a question or a concern, it's going to be the only thing on their mind regardless of what I'm saying, so it's better to start with it right off the bat.  That, and sometimes a concern that parents have is more worthy of your 20 minutes together than discussing data.

Of course, you are always going to come across parents who have absolutely no concerns (or absolutely no idea what is going on in school) and want you to do all of the talking.  Regardless, after starting the conference this way, I am always left with some sort of feeling of how the conference is going to go, the level of involvement that parent has, and what is important to the parent. Giving the option never hurts, though, and I have found that it really helps guide the direction of the conference.

Bottom Line: Don't Be The Star of the Show

During that same conference I referenced above, we were left with not one single piece of paper.  Grades had been spewed, test scores had been referenced, and we had been told about a number of upcoming projects that would be due.  How could I remember all of that information, even with my background in education?

That said, I believe it crucial to let the parents leave with something and to be prepared with the appropriate copies and materials.  If you are going to discuss the report card, make sure you have a copy of it to leave with the parents, and better yet, have pens on the table for parents to take notes.  If you are going to discuss test scores, make sure you have a sheet that interprets scores and briefly describes the test.  Most parents don't know what a CBM (Curriculum Based Measurement) is, or the number of words a student SHOULD be reading per minute.  They don't know what a Lexile Level is or how to use it.  Include that information with their scores.

Now with the Common Core and Standards Based Grading, this is going to be even more important.  If you are going to chat about the common core, type up a quick blurb about what it looks like in your classroom so that parents can take it with them if they so choose.  If you are going to discuss a book report that is due two weeks from now, have a few extra assignment sheets handy in the event that Little Johnny has forgotten to mention it to mom and dad.

This is the organizational method that has worked for me for years… I grab a large piece of construction paper for each child in my room, fold it in half, and write their name on the top.  When I get my conferences scheduled, I write their date and time below their name.  Then, I put all of the folders in the scheduled order.  I include something tangible for just about everything I am going to be talking about so that I don't have a chance to forget anything.

Bottom Line: Be prepared and don't let parents leave empty-handed!

This was one that I missed my first go around, and in hindsight it looks so completely obvious.  I had all my papers ready to go, but nothing with which to take notes!  I would try to remember all the parent requests and quickly write them down, hoping I recalled them all, before my next conference arrived.  (Was it Jimmy that needed to use the restroom every 2 hours, or was he the one who mom wanted me to send home extra addition practice sheets?)  I quickly learned the importance of having a notepad nearby and jotting down any important notes.  I would place a *star* next to any note that required a response or immediate action from me and review it the Monday after conferences.

Bottom Line: Make sure you have a way to make sure you keep your promises!

I remember anxiously awaiting the return of my parents each time they attended a conference for me when I was young.  I try to alleviate this anxiety by having a little mini-conference with my students beforehand and giving them the kid-friendly version of the conference.  If this isn't possible for timing reasons, I at least tell my whole class what we will be talking about.  Most kids have a general sense of how they are doing (especially in third grade and up), so if you tell them you are going to discuss behavior, participation, attendance, and report card grades, they may or may not leave with a valid reason to be anxious. 🙂

Bottom Line: Don't let your students stew at home while their parents meet with you!

Try to keep in mind that the main thing parents care about is that you care about their child and his or her education.  Find a round table or a pair of desks to use and sit next to the parents. Never, ever, ever, ever sit behind your desk for conferences.  Avoid putting your desk between you and the parent, which can be a literal and figurative barrier to your partnership.

Bottom Line: Teaching is a partnership with parents.  Show them that!

Give parents the option to write a little note to their student to leave on their desk.

Bottom Line: Let them say “Hello!”

Long gone are the days that the only two times parents and teachers communicate are at Spring and Fall conferences.  I end every conference by emphasizing to parents that they can call or shoot me an email anytime.  This gives parents a sense of confidence and an open line of communication.  Make sure you mean it–if parents email or call you, do your best to respond within 24 hours.

Bottom Line: Parent communication doesn't end when conferences do.

If you are reading this with that pang of worry in the back of your mind about that one conference that isn't going to be so fun…consider reaching out now, before conferences.  The last thing you want to do is blindside a parent with significant behavior concerns or major academic concerns when you only have 20 minutes to talk.   If it has been three weeks since Kimmy has turned in homework, give parents a call ahead of time and come up with a plan.  If Jackson is failing every single spelling test, it's probably a good idea to let parents know ahead of time and start coming up with some ideas together.  Then, at conferences you can spend a few minutes following up on those issues, updating the progress, and brainstorming how you will tackle it together.

It's difficult to make uncomfortable phone calls, but I can almost guarantee that your conferences will go much more smoothly when you reach out to parents ahead of time with any sort of earth-shattering news.  Don't let parents have a reason to go home and say, “How did I not know about this for the past two months?”

Bottom Line: If at all possible, avoid surprises!

I know there are people who won't agree with me on this one, but I don't think it's reasonable to bring up every concern you have with a child.  Parents need to leave feeling like this was a positive interaction, and if you spend your entire time telling them all of the negative things about their child, I assure you, they won't remember the two positive things you said.  So, choose wisely.  If Emma chats with her neighbor often but is also being a bully on the playground, it's probably more worthwhile to mention the bullying than the chattiness.  If Tyler is failing math and using the restroom at inappropriate times, math is probably most worth your time.

Bottom Line:  If you have negative agenda items, choose wisely.

If you are anything like me, I am incredibly awkward with goodbyes.  Conferences bring out that fear-of-goodbye tenfold because sometimes I have to end the conversation, and that is tricky, tricky for me.  I want to give parents my full attention, but therein lies the problem. I want to give ALL my parents the full attention, which means I need to start and end of time.

Figure out how you will end a conference, especially if it's time for your next parent, and you are still half way through your conversation.  Consider saying something along the lines of…”I am so glad we were able to meet today, but there is another parent waiting.  I know we still need to talk about XYZ, so when would be the best time to do that?”

Bottom Line: Be prepared to end it.  Know how that will go!

And if you are needing a few more tips or ideas for conferences, check out these tips my Facebook Fans shared!

I wish you all successful conferences!  I would LOVE to hear your favorite conference tips in the comments section.

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