Supporting Teachers in Successful Parent Conferences - Steve Barkley

Supporting Teachers in Successful Parent Conferences

I prepared the following guidelines for a client who wants to examine how mentors and instructional coaches could provide support to beginning teachers as they conduct crucial parent conferences. I thought that some of my blog readers would know teachers who would find this helpful. I believe that too often mentors, coaches, and administrators are overlooking opportunities to assist teachers (especially new teachers) in building these important communication skills. Teachers could role play an actual student’s conference with a coach or mentor. I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts.


Conferencing with Parents

Parent teacher conferencing is often a stressful time for teachers and parents alike.

Erin Walton in a blog provides a great analogy. “It’s like speed dating – except conducted in child-sized chairs and with a marked lack of wine.”

Conferencing with parents is most often not addressed in teacher pre-service education and rarely included in the focus areas for mentors to address with new teachers. Most teachers learn through trial and error, often having to repair communications or relationships after an unplanned comment.  Usually a short amount of time is set aside for conferencing and both teacher and parents have an agenda they want to accomplish. Too often, a flood of information flows from the teacher without enough parent engagement. Or the parent opens with a question that puts the teacher into a defensive mode derailing the development of a parent-teacher partnership.

I have found that planning with these five stages helps create a conversation that can lead to some shared decisions for supporting student success. Consider a few bullet points as you prepare for an upcoming conference.

#1 Warm-up

Look to start the conversation with a person to person comment. The weather or a recent school event could do. The key is to gain a moment for eye contact, handshake, and lowering any tenseness. I like to have a comment that communicates my “knowing their child”. Sarah mentioned that her grandmother has been visiting.I understand that Jason has been on a few initial college visits. Janice is really excited about the soccer team’s success. Provide a pause and eye-contact after your statement encouraging the parent to respond. Talking can lower anxious feelings.

#2 Positive Attributes

Identify positive attributes that the student exhibits. All parents have an ego attachment to their “pride and joy.” It’s much easier to discuss the need for your child to change or improve with a teacher who has invested in knowing her well enough to identify strengths that are present and can be built upon. Michelle’s determination to complete a task, even when she is struggling, is a trait that will serve her well. Shawn has the ability to make others laugh. He has often broken a tense moment in class. When I’ve met with Trevor one-on-one, he has been sincere and reflective in our conversations. If you are meeting with parents early in the year and don’t know the student well enough yet, use a question here. What would you identify as Jen’s strengths that she brings into the start of her high school program?

#3 Areas of Progress

Identify growth that has occurred. Even if the growth is insufficient and needs to increase, start with identifying learning that has been achieved. Student work samples are valuable here. Here is a piece of writing that Josh did in September and here is a November piece. Notice that the sentences are more complex, and his ideas are better organized. Kevin is showing the ability to focus on a task independently for a longer period than at the beginning of the year. Showing growth is important when discussing advanced students. On the unit pretest, Sarah showed mastery of the standard. Her work on this independent project illustrates her depth of understanding as she worked to uncover examples within our local government.

#4 Areas for Growth

With the continued increase in desired student outcomes beyond curriculum (communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking etc.), parents should leave a conference with an understanding of some future focus area for growth. If the student’s achievement is below course or grade standards what area is a priority for closing the gap? I think building Steve’s reading stamina is important for his learning success in several areas. As Simone’s English vocabulary increases, she will make academic jumps across his classes.  If at or above standard what is the next challenge to explore? What learning to learn skills or “soft skills” can increase a student’s empowerment? As Jennifer discovers the connection between effort invested and learning outcome, she will feel more motivated to invest the necessary practice time. Setting a challenge learning goal can help Michael increase perseverance.

#5 Ways to Work Together

Look to conclude the conference by identifying how the teacher and parent can partner in supporting the student’s progress. Any role that you are asking the parent to play should be something they are comfortable doing and most likely to find success in carrying out. Avoid asking the parent to tackle a skill that you are already struggling to unlock for the student. Instead, have them work in another area that might give you more time to focus on the difficult area.

If you can send some time having Trevor read the stories to you that I send home, I’ll keep working on some critical word attack skills he needs to develop. How can parents extend learning?  If Natasha and I do a goal setting with action plan, can you ask her to review her progress with you from time to time. I have an after school opportunity for students to get extra support every Tuesday and Wednesday. Can you encourage Cedric to attend once a week for the next two months?

“Parents are our biggest allies as educators. Tapping into the resource that they represent is not always easy, or comfortable for that matter, but educators are nonetheless better served having had a chance to meet with their students’ guardians versus not knowing who is on the other side of a student’s life.”

— C. Osvaldo Gomez

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