Many educators dread parent teacher conferences. And with all the required preparation topped with nervousness about potential parent reactions, it’s no wonder. It can be nerve-wracking, particularly in one’s first year. Parent teacher conferences, though, can be a magic opportunity to create a fabulous year for each child. Believe it or not, I enjoy parent teacher conferences now and find the feedback I get invaluable to tweaking my methods with the kids. (The prep, although interesting, is kind of a drag, but meeting the parents is fun!)
Parent Teacher Conferences: it’s not about us
Ever feel like you’re on trial during parent teacher conferences? Wondering if the parents like you? Worried they won’t take you seriously, particularly if you are fresh out of school? Nervous because they’re friends with that parent who definitely does not like you?
It’s easy to get drowned in doubt and second-guess yourself. But here’s the thing: the parent teacher conference? It’s not about us. It’s not about the parent either. It’s about the kid and how we can pull together our collective parent/teacher expertise to form a more complete picture of how the child is doing.
When we focus on that, rather than on how we’re being perceived, then much of our worries will pop like harmless little bubbles. Trust me, it works. Your shifted focus can completely change the way your conferences run and feel. And you might find yourself saying at the end of the day, “That was actually … fun!”
“They’re more scared of you than you are of them.”
Sure this reference is a little tongue-in-cheek. But honestly? Many parents are much more nervous at parent teacher conferences than we realize. No matter how good a teacher you are, that one little person is one of many in your room. But to the parent? This person is their entire world. If things are going swimmingly, they are thrilled. If the child’s year has some unexpected surprises, their hearts can plummet.
Not being a parent, I asked many parent friends about their feelings on attending teacher parent conferences. The answers were illuminating and occasionally heartbreaking.
When I have a parent teacher conference I’m most worried about if I’m going to like the teacher and hope her style of teaching overlaps with my idea of what school should be (informative, fun, flexible, each child has their own style of learning and hoping the teacher is open to what each child needs). I’m also concerned with what the teacher thinks of me as a parent based on my child’s performance/behavior/personality.
[F]eedback about your child you feel more than any other type of feedback you get as a human being. Nothing is more personal than somebody’s view of how you are as a parent. And that is good and bad. The pride I feel when someone says something good about my child is like none I’ve felt before having kids. But the shame I feel if somebody implies that my parenting has not been good hurts like nothing else.
Yes I do often get nervous because I see it as a high stakes meeting. Few things are as important to me as a parent than my child’s experience at school with learning and relationships. As a parent, we have very few direct interactions with our child’s teachers and these meetings usually occur one or two times a year and are relatively brief. So to me I feel a lot of pressure to make sure that I hear about how my child is doing and understand everything, and also at the same time I feel a great sense of responsibility to be a good advocate for my child. I also have the luxury of being English speaking, well educated, and having a child who is doing well academically and not having behavioral issues. I can’t imagine all of the additional stress has put upon a parent who does not have these advantages.
Many years ago, when ____ was tiny and I was working full-time, I did get nervous at conferences. I was always worried that my child was not up to par with the other children. I guess that parents are afraid to hear any bad news about their children.
I just want the teacher to celebrate my child and see them.
I want to leave feeling like the teacher cares about my son, encourages his interests and has a plan to help address his needs.
If I’m a little nervous about anything, it’s that I want to give some criticism to the teacher or the system and I’m not sure how to share so it’s well received–usually involving wanting one of my kids to be challenged more.
Also I’m nervous that I’m going to find out something about my child that I didn’t know (something about getting a surprise message brings the feelings of loss of control or that I’m not good enough as a parent). AND that if I’d I had only known earlier on in the year, it would have been easier to handle. For example, I didn’t know ____ wasn’t comfortable with her addition facts entering 3rd grade (having them memorized) until I went to conferences and discovered she was doing “poorly” in some areas. If that issue had been assessed and addressed right away, we as a family could have worked together right away. To be given sober news, “your daughter doesn’t know her math facts” would have been easier the second week of school than late October. Good news? We worked on them at home and she had them memorized by Christmas. Easy peasy!
I share these not to make anyone feel badly. (Reading through these, though, I felt a couple of guilty stabs of, “Oh crap. I’ve been guilty of that.”) Rather, it’s information to help us get a more aerial view on the opportunities these parent teacher conferences present. It’s a bit like ripping off the bandaid; painful but ultimately a good thing.
Just like Back to School Night, when we don’t worry about our own performance but focus on others, everybody wins and we feel a heck of a lot calmer and happier and less apt to feel defensive. Which, in turn, often relaxes the parents in a similar vein. Most important, the student’s support system is strengthened.
So how do I do this parent teacher conference thing?
Sign up and Set Up
To begin, a lifesaver in setting these up is the website Sign Up Genius. (I have no affiliations with them. I just depend on them! And it’s totally free.) I set mine up with my work email and then have the sign-up link sent to that address. From there, I send the link to parents. They can sign up on the site, and you can set it up so that it automatically sends them reminder emails.
On the day of the conference, we print out and display the parent teacher conference schedule in the hallway outside the room, along with chairs and a welcoming note on a sign or whiteboard. We also have the kids put their work bins neatly outside the classroom. This way, the parents can peruse their child’s work while they wait for their meeting.
The length of each conference depends on your school culture and your preferences. For the moment, I have 15 minute conferences, so that I can fit four into an hour. In our district, we are given about 3 or so early-release afternoons to do this. During clean-up at the end of the day, I have the kids whose parents are coming in put their work bins in the hallway.
After they leave, I give myself a half-hour for lunch and then have conferences from 1-3:15. I used to have morning slots from 8:05- 8:20, but stopped doing that as that time is so crucial for me to get things ready for the kids, particularly with the loss of prep time in the afternoons. Occasionally I will have a parent who can only do a morning appointment. I work with them to get them that morning time they need, though I generally do it after the other conferences have ended.* For me, it’s hard to be my most effective teaching self if all my time is whittled away on both ends of the day.
*Obviously, if there is a pressing academic or social issue, I make exceptions.
Prepping for the Parent Teacher Conference
Once you have a date, invite any teachers or specialists you think might want to be involved. In most cases, you will not need anyone else. Sometimes, though, it can be very helpful and timesaving in creating solutions for a child.
For example, if the student is an English Language Learner, see if their ELL teacher would like to attend. ELL teachers are godsends. They notice so much that we classroom teachers miss and can often implement simple solutions that would never occur to us. Likewise, they can make the parent feel more at ease, particularly if the parent has experience with this teacher. My school’s ELL teachers have strengthened my relationships with families by explaining cultural rules that I was ignorant of. These seemingly small things make all the difference!
Let the parent know ahead of time who else might be attending, so they won’t be surprised.
Have lots of data and student examples that you can share. I’ve created a free downloadable SSW Parent Teacher Conference Form that lets you fill out student data for each subject. (The B version leaves the subject areas blank.) Pick the form you prefer and fill it out. Copy it double sided so that the Parent Concerns/Next Steps page is on the back.
Before the conference, fill out the front of the form with all the data you’ve collected. Leave the back side blank, as that is what you’ll fill in once you start talking to the parents. I’ll get into what “Next Steps” are a little further down.
Running the Parent Teacher Conference
Think of your classroom as your home. (Some days I know it feels that way!) Invite the parent in as you would invite any guest into your home. Give them a genuine smile. (Read more about relaxing into your true-blue self in this post.)
Begin by talking about some fun things about their child that you love. Let them know you see, appreciate, and “get” their child. This isn’t about manipulation. It’s fun talking about the kids’ personalities and the funny things they say in class. Or the kind things you catch them doing. I get such a kick out of them and I love seeing parents’ faces light up when they get to hear about how their child presents in school.
Try to sit at a round table or at least on the same side of a table. This speaks volumes about your intentions to work as a team. Sitting behind your desk, no matter how friendly and approachable you are, literally and figuratively puts a barrier between you, which can feel off-putting.
I’ll usually give the parent/s a quick synopsis of how the conference will proceed. As an example, I might say this:
So today I’m going to go over how ___ is doing academically and then talk about her friendships and social learning. Then you’ll have an opportunity to share any concerns, thoughts, or questions you might have. Of course, if you have questions throughout, feel free to ask!
In this way, they have the lay of the land and will know that they’ll get a chance to voice any worries or questions they have.
Then you can dive into how they are doing in each area. (I’ll come back to this in a moment.)
Once you and the parent have each had a turn to share, then you can figure out Next Steps. For example, if you notice that the student is calling out a lot, you can list the steps you will take to try to resolve it and note down who will do what.
As it’s very easy to lose track of what next steps you are going to do for whom, I’ve included a page you can copy and then combine all your next steps on for all students. As the week progresses, just check off the items you’ve completed.
Likewise, you can have copies for parents available if they want to take notes on their own Next Steps:
Being truthful and straightforward is important. But kindness is key. The student might look like an ordinary nine or ten-year old. But they were a baby not too long ago, and the parents love that little one to pieces and would move heaven and earth to make the world a better place for them. Present the information in a way you’d want it to be presented to you about your favorite person.
Here’s an example:
At the moment, __ is slightly below grade level for reading. It’s not something that I’m worried about for now, but I am keeping a close eye on it and am giving her more directed instruction in reading comprehension. Reading aloud is no problem for her. Her fluency is above average. What I suspect is happening is that she is reading too quickly and doesn’t seem to buy in to the idea that strong readers reread passages all the time. This is common for a lot of kids, actually. Once they master the art of reading from kindergarten through third grade, they think they’re supposed to comprehend everything on the first try. As adults, of course, we know that that is not the case. We reread constantly. But they’re just starting to pick up on this now. It’s completely normal for this part of their development. Does what we’re seeing in the classroom match with what you’re seeing at home?
Then we might talk about what the parent sees and how we can each support the child.
Here’s another example:
Something I only noticed this week was that ___ has been sitting by himself at lunch. He was sitting with ____, ____, and ____ before, but now he seems to keep to himself and read most of the time. And reading is great, of course! And maybe he’s just not in the mood to hang out with others for a few days, which is fine. But I was really looking forward to talking to you because I don’t know if I’m reading into it too much, or if something is going on in the classroom that is troubling him. I have some ideas to help him, but wanted to get your input first. What are your thoughts?
Again, you’re working with the parent as a team. You don’t have all the answers and they don’t either. Let them know that you will be proactive, but that you’d love their input, because they are, after all, experts on their children. Their suggestions and ideas can make our jobs easier and more fulfilling.
Oh, this is so key. Listen to parents. If they are frustrated with something that is going on in the classroom, let them share without interruption. When you begin your teacher career it is SO hard not to feel defensive. But as they years go by, you will realize that if you let your guard down and just simply listen with body language that says, “I hear you,” you can work out solutions together, ultimately strengthening the bond between you and the parent. Their strong feelings are usually just stemming from fear and have little to do with you as a person.
Ask lots of clarifying questions so you can better understand where they’re coming from. Then work toward a solution together.
You will undoubtedly make mistakes all the time. As you well know — and many parents don’t realize — if we actually did every single thing we were supposed to, we wouldn’t go home at night. That’s no hyperbole, is it? We have to make the best call we can at every turn and hope we made the right choice. And the longer we do this, the better our instincts for making the right call.
But in tampering down our naturally defensive nature, we don’t need to be self-effacing either. So some simple genuine replies might be the following:
No wonder you’re upset. Yes, I can see how when I ____ (or didn’t ____), it felt like _____________. I’m truly sorry. It was never my intent to make you feel ____. But I really appreciate your sharing that with me.
And then talk about how you will both move forward.
What if a parent becomes angry/abusive?
This is oh-so-rare. But it does happen every now and again. And thinking now about how you’ll react will enable you to make the right call if and when the situation ever arises.
Very often, just listening calmly (as stated earlier) will do the trick. People often get heated up when they feel unheard or if they feel like their child isn’t being protected or championed.
When listening has zero effect, though, you’ll need to move in a different direction.
If a parent suggests or states that you are hurting their child in any way, stop the meeting. Have your principal come and/or ask that they reschedule with your principal present. A third party can do wonders in de-escalating a situation. Try not to beat yourself up about this. We’ve all had to ask for help. It just comes with the job.
If you feel physically threatened, stand up and walk out of the room and go to the front office. You can always apologize later if you misread the signals. But always keep yourself safe. Again, this is very very unlikely to happen, but someone shared this with me once (because it happened to them) and I’ve always found it comforting to know exactly what I’d do in that situation. Their experience let me know where the parameters lay.
This is also where your neighboring teachers can help. If you hear anything concerning coming from a neighboring classroom at any time, stick your head in and check on your neighboring teacher. It is rare, but as in every population, there are bullies, and the moment you pop your head in and ask if everything is okay, they usually back right down. If the teacher needs help, stop everything and get it. They will do the same for you. When you’ve built this trust with your colleagues, it’s mighty comforting.
Hitting it out of the park
You know you’ll be hitting it out of the park at your parent teacher conferences when you can check all the following off:
- Parents know I have their child’s best interest at heart.
- They know and love that I GET their child.
- They don’t feel judged when they talk to me or when I talk to them.
- They feel like I’m empathetic to their particular struggles/situation.
- Parents know they can approach me with concerns without worrying I’ll get defensive.
- They feel like I’m flexible in creating solutions that meet the needs of their child.
- They feel included in helping their child succeed but don’t feel like it’s all falling on their shoulders.
- They feel certain that, no matter what the struggle, their child will succeed.
- I know what to do if a conference escalates beyond my control.
Try some of these methods and see if you have more fun and are more relaxed at your next Parent Teacher Conferences! And if you’ve not done so yet, download this SSW Parent Teacher Conference Form and save yourself time and effort later on.
It’s time to hear from you in the comments! (This is the fun part!)
If you are a parent, what are your feelings on parent teacher conferences? Does the above ring true to your experience, or do you have a different outlook?
If you are a teacher, what strategies work for your in parent teacher conferences? Or, if this is your first year, what questions do you have?
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Thank you and have a wonderful week!
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