Saturday, October 25, 2014

Parent-Teacher Conference Tips

For new teachers, parent-teacher conferences can be intimidating.  Rightly so. You have these parents that you barely know looking at you and waiting on you to tell them all about their kid.  I remember when I had my first parent-teacher conference 18 years ago.  I was so nervous.  What do I do?  What do I say?  Ugh.  So much to think about.

After 18 years, I still get a few butterflies, but it's much easier.  I just finished up a round of conferences for this fall.  After reflecting on the conferences that I've done throughout the years, I decided to write a few tips for new teachers.

First, I think it is always best to speak from the heart. Tell parents what you know about their kid- what are the student's likes and dislikes about school, what books does the student love to read, who are the student's friends, how does the student act in social and cooperative group situations, and what are the student's work habits like.  Parents will feel great knowing that you really KNOW their child.

I always try to tell a funny story to parents about their child- nothing embarrassing, but something cute that I know a parent would appreciate. Laugh with them. They may even have a funny story to share with you. Laughter always puts everyone at ease.

For many parents, they may be intimated by YOU.  So, give them the information they need, but take the time to create a relationship with your student's parents.  After all, you are partners in their child's education.

Two Stars and A Wish- see related section for details.
Here are some tips for making your parent- teacher conferences run smoothly and some different ideas you can try if you'd like.

1.  At Meet the Teacher, put out a sign-up sheet.  This will give you a good start on who would like what day and time.  You can follow up closer to parent-teacher conference time to see if the date and time still work.
2.  Make phone calls the week before.  This strategy has always worked well for me. It takes just a few minutes.  I try to keep it casual and conversational, "This is Mrs. Smith, Billy's fifth grade teacher at So and So School.  I'm setting up parent-teacher conferences and wanted to know which day would work better for you?  Tuesday, October 21 or Thursday, October 23? Would you like 4:30 or 6:00?  I always give them two choices to start with because it helps narrow down when they can come.  
3.  Send home a reminder note the week of conferences AND the day of the conference. Have students write down their time in their daily agenda.  Some teacher friends who teach in the younger grades pin a reminder to their student's shirts.  Do whatever works-just get them there!
4.  Send an email with your parent-teacher schedule to your distribution list.   I usually send an email to parents, school office staff, and specialty teachers with my parent-teacher schedule.  This way, the office will know what time parents are scheduled in case they have any phone calls from parents and specialty teachers can join you in the conference if we share students.

You can have teacher-led or student-led conferences.  I've found that it is always easier to do a teacher-led conference in the fall and if you choose to do a student-led conference, it's easier in the spring.  Student-led conferences do require more prep work, so keep that in mind if you choose to do this. Most conferences range from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how many students you have and the time you have allotted for conferences.  I always invite students to attend conferences with their parents.  After all, we are talking about their progress and they should be a part of the process.  If you need to discuss private information, you can have the student step out of the room if needed.  Some teachers do not like to have students in the room, but I just don't understand why.  After all, in order for a child to be successful, the child, the teacher, and the parent need to ALL be invested in this learning process. Like I said, before, there may be times when you might ask the child to leave the room, but for the most part, why wouldn't you want a child to hear your praise and recommendations for success?  I want my students to know that WE (parents and teachers) are working together for THEIR success.

Student-Led Conferences
These conferences are self-reflective in nature and led by students.  The conference is really centered around the student and parent discussing the child's progress.  Now, don't get me wrong.  The teacher is still there and supporting the student if needed and interjecting if necessary.  Students present their portfolio and work samples to their parents.  Before the conference, students write about their progress in each subject area and answer the following questions:  What have I learned?  What activity or lesson did I enjoy the most?  What am I most proud of?  What do I need to work on to improve?  You can use surveys or self-assessments with rubrics. Self-assessments are a great tool and allow students to reflect on their personal progress. In the past when I given self-assessments to students, the results were always interesting and oftentimes students would score themselves more critically than I would.  Before the student's scheduled conference, I would always take time to go over their self-assessment with them to see if our assessments would be the same and discuss areas where they scored themselves low.  You can find many of these types of assessments online, or you can absolutely create your own to fit your grade level or subject area.  Below are some examples of student-led conference evaluations and questioning ideas for parents.

Conference Notes
During your conference you'll probably want some kind of notes to refer to.  I use a reference sheet with information about the student's strengths, challenges, work habits, assessment information, etc...  Some teachers like to wing it, and that's fine.  For me, I'm always afraid I'll forget something important.  Do whatever works for you!  The conference notes page is great to have as a record of what I talked about with the parents during the conference and I can take notes if there is something that I need to follow-up on at a later date.  You can tuck it away in your student file and refer to it for the next conference.  Below are some examples of how you can organize your parent-teacher conference notes. Again, do what works best for you.  I'm sure you can find other examples online as well.

Student Portfolios / Work Samples
Conferences are a great time to show parents examples of their student's work.  You may keep examples of their work in a student portfolio or file folder.  Sometimes items in the portfolio could be teacher selected to show growth or concerns, or they can be student-selected.  Here's a cheap and easy way to make a portfolio-take two pocket folders (no metal brats), cut the folders in two, put the folders together again, then bind them with a binding comb.  You can have students create a cover page and they can put items from different subject areas in each pocket.  

Language Barriers
You may have parents that don't speak English.  Some districts will provide interpreters, or ask high school students to translate.  You may even have to ask your student to translate the information to their own parents.  If you know that a parent doesn't speak English and your student has an older sibling, you could invite the older sibling to translate.  Don't let a language barrier keep you from establishing a relationship with a parent.

During the Conference
  1. Dress professionally.  
  2. Be prepared and ON TIME!  If you are going over time during a conference, acknowledge the parent that is waiting and say "I'll be with you in just a minute", or politely offer to set up another meeting time with the parent who needs more time to discuss his or her child.  You are not being rude, but rather considerate of parent's appointment times.  
  3. Have chairs outside your classroom door, so parents can sit and wait comfortably.  Have a photo album or student work on display so they'll have something to look at.
  4. When parents enter your classroom, greet them with a smile and shake their hands.  A firm handshake, not a wimpy, fish shake.  I hate those.
  5. Have a comfortable seating area and table set up in your classroom. Have quiet toys, books, crayons and paper available for siblings that come with parents. 
  6. During the conference you may have to discuss areas of improvement, but always end the conference with a positive comment about the student.  
  7. If you have something to follow-up on, do it in a timely manner and get back to the parents so they know you did it.
After the  Conference
A great way to follow up conferences is with something called "Two Stars and a Wish".  You can ask parents to respond to their child's conference with a positive letter.  In the letter, the "two stars" refer to two things parents were especially pleased with during the conference.  The "wish" refers to one thing parents would like to see their child work on in the future.  Parents will send their letter to school in a sealed envelope.  Sometimes parents even decorate their special letters.  You could have colored writing paper and envelopes available at conferences, plus a mail box for parents to drop them in.   Plan to have students open the letters once you have received them all. Oh, and double check and triple check to make sure you have them ALL.  You don't want to see a dissapointed child's face when you start passing the letters out and you've forgotten ONE letter.   Disaster!  You could declare a special "Two Stars and a Wish" day.  Tell your students that their letter is special and private and for no one's eyes but their own.  Send students off to read their letter privately.  After opening their letter, they can keep them in their binder for future encouragement and to inspire them to reach their goals for the rest of the year.  Below are some examples of letters that I sent home to parents detailing what to do for the "Two Stars and a Wish".  

I hope you enjoy getting to know your student and their parents this year and building positive relationships. If you have any parent-teacher conference tips, please leave them in the comments section.  Thanks!


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