It's getting to be that time of year again. Parent-Teacher Conferences (PTCs). I have to say that I love PTCs. Working at the school that I did, it might be the only time I ever saw and actually communicated with the parents of certain students. Yes it meant long days at the school and trying to find a nice way to say "YOU WANT TO SEE PROGRESS?!? TRY WORKING WITH YOUR CHILD AT HOME!!!", but it also meant that parents and I were coming together to try and help their child become better.
(Let's all admit that conference's are also a time for parents to give you lip service about how much they have/do/plan to/promise to work with their child. Okay, now I can move on.)
My first year teaching conferences scared me to death. Here I was a 22 year old having to face parents and talk about their babies struggles and strengths. There are a lot of Mama and Papa Bears out there who are fiercely protective of their children and I didn't want to say the wrong thing. I would always wonder:
-Have I prepared enough?
-Am I brave enough to tell "Jason's" mom what needs to be said?
-Will it even matter?
-Am I wasting my time?
-Will parents even show up?
-How can I tell these parents, who work three jobs and speak little English, that their child is very far behind?
In an effort to help other teachers who have this struggle, I want to share some tips and tricks I learned along the way. (There is also a great handout from the Harvard Family Research Project that says some similar things.)
1. Send out invitations, reminders, reminders, and more reminders
Parents are busy. My school was a school that had a lot of immigrant and refugee families. Many worked several minimum-wage jobs. Even just one job is hard when you have kids. The more reminders you can send out, the better. Do it at LEAST ONE WEEK before conferences so you can reschedule/rearrange parents who can't make their conference. As much of a pain as rescheduling is, it's better than having no-shows where you are just sitting there by yourself in a room for fifteen minutes wasting time.
2. Prepare, prepare, prepare
Make sure you have everything you need for each conference. You only have a short time to talk to these people. You want to come off looking prepared and professional with everything in order. You don't want to waste precious minutes looking for an example of a student's work while the parents stare blankly at you. I have a folder for each child in my filing cabinet. I would put examples of good (and not so good) examples in there so when conference time rolled around I had things ready to go. I also used math journals in my class and those were easy to grab from student's desks to show their work.
Make sure you also have all the papers for each child together: report cards, attendance sheets, any Special Education information, library book late notices, etc. Then, put them in the order you want to talk about them. I also had my students fill out a reflection sheet. We would end with that, talking about goals the child had made for the future so it ended on a positive note no matter how the conference went.
Finally, create an agenda or list of important issues you want to make sure you hit on. This will help you cover everything you need to.
3. Send out reminders
Did this already? Do it again.
4. Set up a warm environment
Another teacher in my school was really good at this. I would just pull my guided reading table closer to the door with adult-sized chairs around it and all my papers neatly stacked. Then, I went into her room and felt stupid. She had covered her table with cute paper on the top, set out a small bowl of candy, moved the small plant from her window to the edge of the table and sprayed her room with something yummy smelling (the last couple years I plugged in a Scentsy warmer to make the room smell better. Don't tell the fire marshall!). This really warmed up the place and made parents feel comfortable talking about their child.
5. Start and end with the positive
This is their baby. As hard as this child may be, as low as this child may be, this is their baby. Start with something positive to say about this student. Sometimes it might be "Hey your kid didn't throw a desk today! Score!". Then, end with something positive like "Those are great goals you made for yourself! I know you will work hard to reach them!". This also makes the student feel loved and appreciated.
6. Use concrete examples
Examples, good or bad, really add to the conversation and show parents what you are seeing in the classroom. I had one mother who was in total denial that her 8 year old could read or write more than a few short words at a time. She said that he did it all the time at home. Well, I whipped out his guided reading notebook and showed her his handwriting, sentence structure and spelling )which was basically something like: TBWEXTIOSS. That not only gently made her face reality, but also gave us a starting point to start making goals for the future. Good examples help a child and parent feel empowered.
7. Listen attentively to concerns, take notes, and ask questions
This is an opportunity for parents to tell you about their child and ask for help. I have found that doing the above three things really starts a conversation about a child. If a parent sees that I am taking note on what we are talking about, it helps to reassure them that I will follow through with what we have discussed. Parents are more likely to put in effort if they feel you are.
8. Seek collaborative solutions and make an action plan
Once the lines of communication are open, come up with solutions that the parents can get behind. For example, I had nine different languages in my last class. Not all of the parents could read or speak English. When their child was trying to work on reading, we decided that the child would read out loud to their parents. This helped the parents with their English as they looked at easy children's books, and helped their child with reading. Did they mess up some of the words? Probably. But as long as the book was on the child's level, I found that it worked pretty well.
Wow I'm long winded. I promise I'm almost done!
9. Establish lines of communication
Set up a plan for how you can communicate with parents. Some of my parents changed cell phones every three months when they couldn't pay their phone bill. With these people, I knew to send notes home stapled in their child's planner. Some prefer email. Some text (be careful about that one. I never felt comfortable doing that.) Whatever the best way is for you and for them try it. Don't be afraid to change it up if it isn't working for you. Make sure to communicate positive behaviors as much as possible. I set up a time once a week where I would call 3-5 student families with something positive that their child did that week. It was one of the best parts of my week because phone calls from school usually mean something bad. Getting a positive call made the parents so happy!
10. Did you send out a reminder? Do it now!
If you liked the forms and letters I used, you can find them by clicking on the link. There is also an editable version included where you can type directly into the forms.
What are some tips and tricks you have found useful?
PEACE, LOVE, AND STICKY NOTES