Parent/teacher conferences can be stressful for both parties, but even more stressful to new teachers who are navigating this delicate relationship for the first time. In this week’s Quick Tip, the authors of Mentoring Beginning Teachers: Guiding, Reflecting, Coaching, offer some advice for veteran teachers on how to support new educators as they prepare for their first parents/teacher conference.
Newsletters, websites, and surveys are helpful, but face-to-face meetings serve as perhaps the most important communication venues. These might take the form of open houses, back-to –school nights, or parent/teacher conferences. Many schools host an open house for parents/guardians during the first weeks of school.
Jim Burke (2007) recommends preparing a handout, displaying student work, wearing professional attire, greeting parents upon their entrance, and emphasizing teacher availability for future conferences or email exchanges. He also gives parents index cards with questions similar to the survey questions suggested earlier. Mentors can help prepare beginning teachers for these occasions by describing the general procedures: who greets parents upon entering the building, how long parents usually stay in the classroom, whether teachers are expected to talk to the parents as a group or individually, what displays are usually provided, how many parents to expect, and where refreshments or other information (book fairs, etc.) are located. Beginning teachers will often feel more comfortable with a routine: greeting parents, introducing themselves, saying something positive about the student, giving a handout or index card, and inviting parents to circulate around the room. Mentors might role play situations with beginning teachers to help them feel more comfortable in this new situation.
Middle schools and high schools sometimes sponsor a back-to-school night in which parents adopt their child’s schedule and move from classroom to classroom, hearing a summary of each class for ten to fifteen minutes. Mentors and beginning teachers can jointly rehearse their own description of the course. Beginning teachers, who are often technologically adept, may wish to present a PowerPoint presentation, keeping the presentation organized and allowing the parents’ eyes to be directed to the screen rather than directly to the speaker. Since the session usually concludes with a question-and-answer time, mentors can help prepare beginning teachers with typical parental questions.
Of course, the most common encounter with parents is the parent/teacher conference. While beginning teachers are often acquainted with various school procedures in their past observational role as a student, they probably have not directly experienced parent/teacher conferences unless they themselves have children. Ellen Moir states, “Parent conferences require new teachers to be highly organized, articulate, tactful, and prepared to confer with parents about each student’s progress. This type of communication with parents can be awkward and difficult for beginning teachers. New teachers generally begin with the idea that parents are partners in the learning process, and they are not prepared for parents’ concerns or criticisms.” (1999, 21)
To assist new teachers in preparing for conferences, mentors can discuss the procedures and rehearse various encounters. Some teachers prepare folders with student work and use the time to explain the curriculum and show the student’s strengths and weaknesses (or “areas to work toward”) in the particular subject area. Other teachers create note cards with specific comments tailored to each student, allowing them to use the sandwich technique: saying something positive, presenting the student’s difficulties or challenges with the work, and concluding with ways the parents and teacher can work together for positive results. Yet others like to begin on a conversational note of talking about the student’s interests prior to talking about the student’s academic work.
Mentors working with student teachers might model the first conferences, then invite the student teacher to give added comments, and gradually move toward having the student teacher takes a leadership role in the conference. In a middle school or high school situation in which the student teacher is teaching various classes and the cooperating teacher has not yet turned over other classes, the student teacher can take a leadership role in the conferences with the parents of the students she is currently teaching. Th is initial experience will help the beginner feel more confident in future parent/teacher conferences.
Mentors can help make beginning teachers aware of the concerns that parents bring with them. Sidney Trubowitz and Maureen Picard Robins refer to “parents who themselves experienced schools as places of failure, parents whose family life is in disarray, parents with unrealistic expectations for their children, and parents whose cultural values are out of sync with those of the school” (2003, 80). Other parents may seem quiet-natured and remain silent during the conference, may be non-English speakers who require a translator, or may have little or no control over their children and frankly admit their deficiencies. For instance, a beginning teacher may be excited to see a parent at a parent/teacher conference in which a student has earned an A– in class, thinking that this will be an easy conference to negotiate, only to discover that the parent is angry that the student doesn’t have an A on the report card.
Veteran teachers will often remark that each conference time often contains a new surprise, so mentors might prepare beginning teachers that occasionally a parent may cry, become angry, or seem apathetic. Sometimes a parent takes a negative comment personally, presuming that if a child is not doing well, it must be the parent’s fault. Mentors can show how to reassure parents by discussing or role playing possible encounters, illustrating how to defuse a problematic situation. While this might make some beginning teachers even more nervous, usually new teachers prefer to feel prepared, even for unlikely events.
Mentors need to emphasize that just as classes need to be learner centered, so, too, parent/teacher conferences should be parent centered. Teachers can encourage parents to describe their child’s interests and goals, to ask questions, and to share their concerns. Questions such as “What would you like me to know about your son?” or “What questions would you like to ask about your daughter’s work?” might lead to fruitful conversations. Most important, though, is for teachers to ask, “What ideas do you have for how we can help your child improve as a student? How can we work toward this goal together?” To create a true parent/teacher partnership, the conference needs to conclude with a two-way action plan: for instance, with the parent providing a work space and specified time for homework and the teacher agreeing to inform the parent of progress or problems with homework completion.
Mentors can help beginning teachers realize that what they say during a conference is often less important than what they ask and how well they listen. Many schools have moved toward a student-led parent/teacher conference, which may not have been the beginning teacher’s experience in his own school years, his practicum, or his student teaching. In this instance, it’s helpful for mentors to explain the procedure and to prepare students to become leaders in the conference. If these conferences are interdisciplinary, the beginning teacher may not see some of the parents of her own students, so she may want to set up individual conferences at another time for parents of struggling students.
In the following conversation, interdisciplinary team members describe to their new colleague how they prepare for parent/teacher conferences:
Amanda: Since parent-teacher conferences are scheduled for next week, let’s talk about what we can do to prepare. For instance, Kevin, since you’re a new teacher, you might have questions for us.
Kevin: Well I’d like to hear you describe a typical conference and what I should do to prepare.
Betty: What were you planning to do to prepare?
Kevin: Frankly, I hadn’t thought about it. I just figured I’d answer the parents’ questions.
Betty: Well, the most common question is, “How is my son or daughter doing in your class?” How can you prepare for that question?
Kevin: I guess I should have my grade book with me so I can look up the grades and assignment
Sam: That’s helpful. Sometimes I make a note card for each student with one positive comment and one goal for improvement.
Kevin: Um, I could try that.
Amanda: Would you like to see us role play some conferences?
Kevin: That would be great!
Amanda: If we each role played being the teacher, Kevin could see our different conference styles, and then he could decide which way suits him.
Kevin: Super! Could you role play a typical conference and then some difficult ones, such as a student not doing the work or a student who is the class clown? Then maybe I could role play the teacher’s role and get in some practice.
Amanda: OK, let’s try it.
Sam: Let’s go for it!
Helping beginning teachers know what to expect during conferences will assist them in feeling more prepared and confident as they initiate parent/teacher partnerships.