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Virginia Journal of Education


Staying In Tune


Being in harmony with your students' parents is essential. An effective parent-teacher conference helps.

It’s best for students—and everyone else—when teachers and parents are working together smoothly toward common goals. The parent-teacher conference is one of the best opportunities educators have to make this happen, so here are some tips for making the most of those chances, adapted from VEA’s “I Can Do It” classroom management handbook:

Get everyone there if you can.  Encourage both parents to attend conferences when possible. There will be fewer misunderstandings if both parents hear what you have to say, and you’ll be able to gauge the kind of support the child is getting. This has become more of a challenge as more and more students come from single-parent homes.

Take your time.  Schedule 20 to 30 minutes for each conference. If you’re scheduling back-to-back conferences, be sure to allow enough time between them (10 minutes or so) to make necessary notes on the just-concluded conference and prepare for the upcoming one.

Have a plan. Keep in mind a general (but flexible) outline of what you’re going to say, including a summary of how the student’s doing, a review of his or her strengths and needs, and a proposed plan of action.

Get the name right. Don’t assume that Jennifer Peabody’s mother is Mrs. Peabody. She could well have a different last name. Check your records ahead of time to make sure you’ve got the parents’ names right. And try not to talk to the Smiths about their son “Stan” when their son’s name is “Steve.”

Have an upbeat start. Begin conferences on a warm, positive note to get everyone relaxed. Start with a positive statement about the child’s abilities, work or interests.

Give them structure. As soon as the parents arrive, review the agenda for the conference so you’ll both know what to expect. Remember, of course, that some parents will come with their own agenda or questions they want answered, so be prepared to be flexible.

Be specific. Parents may flounder if you deal only in generalities. Instead of saying, “She doesn’t accept responsibility,” pin down the problem by pointing out, “Amanda had a whole week to finish up her book report, but she only wrote two paragraphs.”

Offer a “game plan.” Parents appreciate being given some specific direction. If Jan is immature, it might be helpful to suggest parents give her a list of weekly chores, allow her to take care of a pet, or give her a notebook to write down assignments. (Of course, only offer advice when they ask you for it and, make sure they understand these are just suggestions.)

Turn the other cheek. It’s possible to run into parents who are hostile and rude. Try not to be rude, and ignore the rudeness if you can. However, if it gets out of hand, explain to the parents that perhaps it would be better to reschedule the conference when a guidance counselor or administrator can be there as well. It’s always good to have a different perspective.

Let them talk. Let parents know you’re interested in their opinions, are eager to answer their questions, and want to work with them.

Focus on strengths. It’s very easy for parents to feel defensive, since many see themselves in their children. You’ll help if you review the child’s strengths and areas of need, rather than dwelling on criticism or stressing weaknesses.

Use body language. Non-verbal clues set the mood of the conference. Smile, nod, make eye contact and lean forward slightly. You’ll be using your body’s language to let parents know you’re interested and approving.

Stress collaboration. Let the parent know you want to work together in the best interests of the child. A statement like “You need to see me as soon as possible to discuss Johnny’s poor study habits” only arouses hostility, while “I’d like to discuss with you how we might work together to improve Johnny’s study habits” gets the relationship off on the right foot.

Ask about the child. You don’t want to pry, of course, but remember to ask parents if there’s anything they think you should know about the child, such as study habits, relationships with siblings, or any important events in his or her life which may affect schoolwork.

Focus on solutions. Ideally, all parent conferences would concern only positive events. Realistically, many conferences are held because there’s problem. Things will go more smoothly if you’ll focus on solutions rather than on the child’s problem. Discuss what you and the parents can do to help improve the situation. Plan together a course of action.

Summarize. Before the conference ends, summarize the discussion and what actions you and the parents have decided to take.

Wind up on a positive note. When you can, save at least one encouraging comment or positive statement about the student for the end of the conference.

Keep a record of the conference. You may find it helpful later to have a brief record of what was said at the conference, what suggestions for improvement were made and so forth. Make notes as soon as possible after the conference, while details are still fresh.


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