How to Make Parent-Teacher Conferences More Parent-Friendly

At schools across the county, parent-teacher conferences are happening right now. The first report cards of the year were probably sent home in the past few weeks. Now, it’s time for parents and teachers to discuss how things are going. This is arguably the most critical moment of the school year for parent engagement. Parents trust teachers more than any other source of information when it comes to their child’s education. When I was a teacher, I really looked forward to these first-quarter conferences. They offered an opportunity to set the tone and get everyone on the same page early in the year, when there was still time to make bigger adjustments.

We recently offered parents some tips on how to read report cards in our EdTips newsletter (it’s not as easy as you think). As teachers prep for the initial round of report card conferences, we hope that they will offer an honest and comprehensive view of each student’s performance. That’s not easy, either. Teachers only have a few minutes with each parent, and there’s a lot to cover. If the student’s not doing so well, it can be a tough conversation. I know I had plenty of those as a teacher, and there were always conferences I wished I’d handled differently.

Today, when teachers ask me how they can make sure parent-teacher conferences are useful to families, here’s what I tell them:

Be clear

Make sure parents fully understand what their child’s report card is saying. Go beyond generic statements like, “Your child needs to focus on math.” Provide examples of student work and show families where students are struggling or thriving, specifically. Parents crave specifics because such details inspire them to play a more active role in their child’s learning development and help them understand how they can be helpful at home. Likewise, don’t assume that they can interpret, “she’s very enthusiastic in class” when you actually mean “she needs to practice waiting her turn and raising her hand” – be direct and say things plainly.

Be candid

When you go to the doctor, you expect to get an honest assessment of your health. If a blood test shows a problem, your doctor is ethically obligated to tell you about it—even if it’s not what you want to hear. Parents should be able to expect the same from their children’s teachers. They aren’t expecting to be overloaded with information as they’re juggling their own set of responsibilities, but schools should never sugarcoat issues.

Research shows that more than 90% of parents believe their children are performing on grade level when the data says otherwise. They aren’t delusional; they just aren’t getting good information. It is essential for teachers to clearly explain to parents where their children are academically. If a child is struggling, make sure her parents understand how serious the issue is and what has to happen in order to get her back on track. The goal isn’t to scare anyone, but rather to build a shared sense of urgency and focus.

Be collaborative

As teachers, you won’t find a better partner to work with than parents. They know their kids better than anyone, so use them! Parents can provide insights into their children's behavior, habits, motivations, and general quirks that can help you reach them in the classroom. When students see their teacher and parents on the same page, it pushes them to meet and exceed expectations. The message is clear: there are no loopholes. Success is the only option.

At the end of the report card conference, parents should have a clear set of next steps, understanding exactly what the school will do to support their child moving forward and tips on how they can reasonably help at home. But these meetings aren’t just about setting clear expectations for the student; they’re also about enabling parents to actively participate in their child's education and to hold the school accountable.

One last thing, teachers and principals: Please make sure that parents get a copy of the report card! This might sound obvious, but many schools ask parents to sign and return the report card, leaving them with no reference of progress. We all know that report cards make nice refrigerator decorations, so don’t deprive parents of that!

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