Present yourself as an ally, not an enemy
This is especially true if the meeting will center around unpleasant topics, more so if the parent seems combatant. There are a few parents who will never see you as an ally, sadly, but you should still try to get them on your side without compromising your integrity. Start the meeting on a positive note by telling the parent you are glad to have the opportunity to meet with him or her and that you hope to work as a team in the best interests of the child. Enter with a smile, look the parent in the eye, and listen attentively.
Make a list of what you should speak about
No matter who calls the meeting, you should make yourself a list of important issues you want to address. If the parent calls the meeting to discuss something specific, you can still take the opportunity to call attention to anything else the parent should know. Most importantly, make sure you have at least one positive thing to say about the student, even if you have to reach deep within yourself to find it. Remember the first tip – present yourself as an ally.
Dress your best that day
As much as we wish it weren’t true, it is human nature to judge based on appearances. Walking into a parent-teacher conference in any ol’ garb sends a negative message to the parents, especially if the parents prove to be difficult. You are a professional. You need to present yourself as such. Dressing your best gives parents the impression that you take this job, and them, seriously.
Bring relevant documentation
No matter what the meeting is about, you want to be prepared. Bring in any documentation pertaining to the student’s grades and behavior. Should a student’s grade be slipping, make sure you can explain why, like the student is not turning in assignments on time (if at all) or the assignments are incomplete. If you offered extra assistance to the student, make sure you mention that, as well. If the student’s grades are not “bad” but fall below the parents’ expectations, however, make sure you explain why. I would bring in an example of an ideal “A” assignment to contrast against the student’s work, as well as the grading criteria. (As a side note, you should not back down from your grading method so long as it is fair and reasonable.) If behavior is an issue, talk to the parent about what might trigger and/or prevent undesirable behavior. Together, you can provide each other valuable insight.
If you have not been keeping records, you need to backtrack and record information immediately. I am NOT suggesting that you fabricate information, mind you. Only record what you can remember, and if you cannot recall the exact date, note down the timeframe as best you can. Make sure to record the circumstances regarding the situation, as well, but never show the parent any documentation that contains the names of other students. (Reminder: you cannot discuss someone else’s child with another parent. The most you can say is who else is in the class with the student in question.)
Bring support if the situation warrants it
Earlier I stated that you might find yourself in a situation that calls for backup assistance, usually when dealing with a difficult parent. I recommend a supportive administrator (hopefully you have at least one in your building) who is willing to go to bat for you should a parent make unfair or unreasonable demands. Even if the parent you are about to meet with seems reasonable, I would still bring in outside support anyway – it helps to have a third party witness in case things go south later. Fortunately, I have not been accused of saying or promising something that I never did, but if I had been, I was prepared. I think it is my preparedness that has saved me from some of these problems, in fact.
Set a time limit
Your time is valuable, as is the parent’s. At the start of the meeting, after you have thanked the parent for coming, state your time limit. “I’m glad we could meet today. I just want you to know upfront that I have __ minutes to meet; I have to get back to the classroom/leave the building by/whatever by ___.” Only explain what you feel comfortable explaining. If the parent is pushing you to answer something you are uncomfortable with, such as what appointment you absolutely cannot be late to, hold your ground. You can assure the parent that while you take this meeting seriously, you have other important obligations that must be met, as well, and that you appreciate him or her respecting your privacy. Should a meeting look like it’s going to go over, check the time and let the parent know you absolutely have to leave. However, you can offer to meet with him or her later, whether it be in person, by phone, or through email (as much as you might not want to). This way, you are simultaneously sending the message that you are sticking to your boundary while still respecting the parent’s need to finish the meeting. Should you have your doubts about whether or not the parent will respect your boundary, though, you can always have another faculty meeting prepared to interrupt the meeting and state that your presence is required elsewhere. This isn’t a technique I’ve used personally, but a colleague of mine has – and I totally understood why she did it.
These are the tips I’ve picked up along the way. Feel free to add your own advice, fellow educators!