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With a total of five hours to meet 20-something families, elementary school teachers in New York City have between 10 and 15 minutes for each conference. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to cover a child’s academic progress, social-emotional progress, areas for growth in these areas, and provide suggestions for supporting learning at home.
It’s no surprise then that teachers can end up talking the whole time and still feel like they didn’t say everything they needed to. It’s not surprising, but it’s a shame. Because in many schools, Parent-Teacher Conferences are one, if not the only, time when families and teachers to meaningfully engage around student learning. If a teacher ends up doing most or all of the talking then that’s a missed opportunity.
Family-Teacher Conferences* are not only a time for teachers to communicate about student learning to families. Communication must be bilateral. Beyond the obvious issue of respect, it’s an issue of gaining valuable information. As the authors of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships write:
“Educators can learn a great deal from parents. Parents and other family members bring knowledge and perspective about their children, their culture and values, and the strengths and problems of their communities.”
1.Start the conversation early. One of the main reasons I have adopted home visits as a teacher is to enlist parents as partners in their child’s learning, long before conferences come around. Families are a child’s first teachers. I want to learn everything I can from them as early as possible and set academic goals collaboratively.
2.Plan ahead. You don’t have to script everything out, but be prepared to speak to specific strengths and areas of growth. This Educator’s Room post provides a good primer on how to do this as well as how to center the conversation around student work, not just a teacher’s assessment of that student’s learning.
3.Invite students to participate. Even though some might consider my third graders too young to participate in Family-Teacher Conferences, I know they can and should be responsible for speaking to their own learning. Prior to conferences I have students fill out a brief reflection on the skills and strategies they feel they do well and those they want to improve on. Whether families bring their children to conferences or not, I begin conferences by reviewing this document.
4.Ask questions. Listen. I know this feels obvious, but I know at times I’ve felt under pressure to cover everything we’re learning I’ve forgotten to stop talking and just listen. Again this is where preparation can really be helpful. A few questions I like to ask my families are: How do you feel about your child’s progress at this point? Do you have any questions or concerns about the classroom? How do you feel communication has been so far? Do you have any ideas or suggestions for our learning?
5.Provide concrete resources. Almost every family I meet with is looking for specific ways to help out at home. I try to have a few hand-outs ready. You’ll know what resources best fit your classroom and school community. This year I provided directions to access our class account on Khan Academy, a list of STEAM apps, and an infographic on diversity in kid’s literature that was connected to our current writing unit.
There’s no one way to do Family-Teacher Conferences. Like all aspects of teaching, it depends on who you are as a teacher, as well as your students, their families and the community you teach in. What’s most important to remember is that conferences are a chance for us to listen and learn as much as for us to speak and share.
*This term feels more inclusive of non-traditional families, i.e. students who live with grandparents, or other non-parent guardians.