Done right, a parent-teacher conference gives a parent or guardian a word or two about how their student is doing in class, flags any possible issues, and ends in under twenty minutes so everyone can get home to watch Netflix. Done well, a parent-teacher conference can help build a strong relationship and transform that parent (or guardian) into both your ally and a partner in that student's education.
So how do you make sure it's not just done right, but done well?
Check out the six tips below to find out how you can build upon your current approach to conferencing in order to get the most out of these meetings.
1. Plan for your conferences in advance—way in advance.
True, your first parent-teacher conferences probably won't be scheduled until mid-term or so, but that's no reason to put off your planning. In fact, dedicating some effort to planning early in the year (heck, even during your summer break—no, we're not kidding) will help ensure that you're fully organized and good to go when PTC time rolls around.
But aren't parent-teacher conferences, like, specific to individual students? What can you do before you've even met your class for the year? Turns out, plenty. See tips 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 for specifics. They all have portions that can be prepped in advance.
2. Draft a personalized invitation.
See what we mean? You don't have to get to the "personalized" part right away, and the non-personalized part? A breeze. Whether you plan to email parents, send a note home with students, or put up a post on your school or class website, you can start putting that language together before the school year is up and running. And hey—there's no need to reinvent the wheel here. If you Google "parent-teacher conference invitation" and check out the images, you'll see plenty of templates you can use or borrow from. That's what they're there for, after all.
Here's an example invite that thinks outside the box. A couple of middle school teachers in Cape Elizabeth, Maine came up with a Mad-Lib-style email that they allowed students (under supervision) to personalize and send to their parents in order to schedule times. As you can imagine, there was a lot of praise for students ("to discuss the progress of your [ADJECTIVE:] brilliant, [ADJECTIVE:] talented daughter") and a bit of ribbing for the teachers ("my teacher, the [ADVERB:] very [ADJECTIVE:] strange Ms. Johnson, would like to meet with you").
So, this one obviously requires a fair amount of creativity to pull off, but you can bet it went over well with parents, and we're guessing it also helped to have students involved in the writing and sending process. ("Did you get my email? Did you see what I wrote? Have you replied yet?")
The way you approach your invitation is up to you. [EXPRESSION THAT IS BOUND TO BE PASSE BY NOW:] Obvi. You can be creative with it or keep it simple—it doesn't matter. Just get it done and be ready to get it out.
Excited about the Mad Libs thing, but in a school that sends out a form letter for you when conference time rolls around? It doesn't hurt to send a double (or ask your administrators not to send theirs). After all, if you want to use your conference time to help establish and build relationships with parents, a personalized invitation unique to your classroom is a great first step.
3. Create mini-portfolios for each of your students.
At the beginning of the year, label a manila folder for each of your students and place it in a hanging file folder in your file cabinet. How to organize it? If you see fewer than 30 students on a regular basis, the alphabet is your friend. If you see multiple classes of 15-20 students or more, maybe you want to organize them first by class, and then make the alphabet your friend within each class period. And there are always things like separate file drawers or color-coded hanging file folders to aid in your organization. It can get pretty raucous in there.
Throughout the year, select—or have students select—multiple samples of their work to place in the folder. You'll use these samples for illustrations during your conversations with parents when conference time rolls around. An extra special add? Dropping little notes into students' folders whenever a student does something that merits recognition. Those can be positive or negative, and just think how helpful it'll be when you're conferencing with those parents and can pull out an index card with a funny anecdote about Little Lizzy.
Just like with points 1 and 2, here's a bonus tip: start early. If you create and organize the folders in the first week of school, you can check them weekly to make sure that samples of student work are being saved. The best part: having this work available come conference time will not only give you concrete examples of student strengths and areas to improve—it will also act as a cheat sheet when you're prepping for a conference and wondering, "Hmm…what can I say about this student?"
4. Make sure your conference area is comfortable and accommodating.
If you teach younger students, your class may be full of undersized chairs, and that just might be a problem for any parent who has mobility issues, is over five feet tall, or weighs more than 115 pounds. Hopefully, you've played it smart and developed good relationships with school staff members (whether admin or custodial staff) and since you baked them those cookies (or, you know, asked nicely), they'll know where to nab you some adult-sized chairs. And—if you make them with extra chocolate—maybe even bring those chairs to your room.
Once you've found chairs that an adult can sit in without slipping a disc, check to make sure you have enough of them. Occasionally, whether you've requested it or not, students may accompany parents to conferences. Or, divorced couples who have remarried and managed to keep things amicable may all want to attend, meaning you'll need to accommodate at least four adults. Or maybe a flock of aunties is in town. Hey, improbable is not impossible, so be prepared.
Set the chairs up in a way that will allow you and the parent(s) to sit comfortably and have an open dialogue. So, around a table or at a group of desks may be better than at your own desk, which can be distancing and set up a strange power dynamic. On the table or desks between you, provide healthy snacks and water if possible, or—at the very least, pencils and paper for parents to take notes, as well as a box of tissues for anyone who has a cold or gets emotional (this is Little Liz we're talking about).
5. Use the feedback sandwich model.
No one wants to spend their 15-30 minute conference listening to you list off all the areas in which their student needs to improve. And while some parents may be perfectly content to hear 15-30 minutes of you praising every aspect of their student's performance in your class, unless that student has already mastered everything you have to teach, there must be a few ways in which parents can help you challenge that student and help her achieve her personal best.
The feedback sandwich technique is a great way to make sure you're hitting a good balance between positive feedback and constructive criticism. (And it's so popular we found illustrations of it in multiple languages.) The way it works is pretty obvious.
Start off your conference with some pluses about the student. From there, move into the more difficult territory of what's not going so well or what may need a touch of improvement. To wrap up, remind parents of the positives (or offer a few new ones, if there are that many). Finally, make sure you have a plan for moving forward, whether that involves specific steps you, the student, or the parents will need to take or a plan for further discussion. Yep, it's a pretty good way to end strong.
6. Invite the student to the conference.
The major players in a student's education are the teacher, the parents, and—yeah, duh—the student. So, unless there's a compelling reason to have the conference without the student (and for some families, for whom the student in question is the primary babysitter for younger siblings, there may be), include the student in the conversation.
In fact, you may even want to have the student lead the conference. Sound like a crazy idea? Read about the tried-and-true methods of the student-led parent-teacher conference here.
7. Prepare a feedback form for parents.
If you take a peek at our article about the differing needs of extroverts and introverts in the classroom, you will know that introverts, in particular, may need time to process information before they can respond to it. It doesn't mean that they're not listening or don't care—just that they're thinking it through before they spit a response right back atcha.
And guess what? Some of the parents you meet with will have this same sort of style. When you ask them mid-conference, "Do you have any questions for me?" they may say no, only to think of three things they wish they'd asked about later.
To address this issue—and also to encourage continued communication, which, we promise, will be a plus for both of you—offer parents a simple feedback form. They can mail it to you later, have their student bring it to you in class, or use it as an outline for a follow-up email.
And don't worry, it doesn't need to be complicated. Just a few prompts or a simple paragraph will do, along these sorts of lines:
- What was helpful or enjoyable about our conference process?
- What would you change about our conference process in the future?
- Are there any questions you didn't get a chance to ask during the conference?
- Do you have any new questions or concerns since we talked?
- What is the best way for me to contact you to share information in the future?
You can leave space on the form for parents to write in their answers, plus provide your email in case they prefer to type you a quick message instead.
Whether parents follow up with the feedback form or not, it will send a strong message that you are open to communicating with them and that you value their feedback.
8 Prepare a feedback form for you.
Don't go radio silent with parents after the conference. After all, you're going to have to do this again in a few months, and it's bound to go even better the next time around if you maintain your parent relationships between conferences.
To that end, create a template you can use to follow up with parents post-conference. It can be a form with boxes to check and space for comments, or a simple email with a few details (a thank you, something you enjoyed about the conversation, any particular notes—you can tweak it to make it personal for each family).
Whatever format you use, the first line should either thank parents for coming in, or in the case of parents who didn't attend, express your disappointment at not having had a chance to meet with them. You can offer these latter parents a chance to set up a future appointment, or to have a quick phone or video conference if that's something you can swing. Or you can just continue into the body of the letter, summarizing a few main points in the conference and letting parents know you look forward to continuing to work with them. How professional is that? Very.
And of course, if you want to be impressively prompt about it, you can have postcards ready to go on conference day and jot out quick thank you notes immediately after meeting with each parent or set of parents. Be sure to hit the three main points:
- Thank you/it was nice to meet you (or sorry to have missed you)
- I'm glad we got a chance to talk about…X or Y
- I look forward to hearing from you/working with you more in the future
Bing, bam, boom. That will do it, and it will reinforce the message that you value parent involvement. Which is, after all, one of the keys to student success. And that way you'll have ensured that your parent-teacher conference is done right and done well.