If you’re reading this you’re likely a teacher and, if you’re a teacher, you surely have your share of parent-teacher conference stories. For those of you who are not teachers, thank you SO much for following my blog. I have lots of those stories as well and, although we can learn lots from them, they are not my purpose in writing this. I’d like to get right to the heart of parent-teacher conferences and ask “What is their purpose?”
Ok, so that question raised the hackles for some people. You might be thinking “but we’ve always had parent-teacher meetings!” or “but how else can parents find out about their child’s progress?” Parent-teacher interviews are a long-standing school tradition, but I would never say that they are a “sacred cow” of education. What I mean to say is that I believe it is long past the time to rethink how we conduct parent-teacher conferences and **gasp** maybe whether or not we should even continue to have them at all.
There are at least two major problems with the idea in its current form. The first problem is seeing the parents we actually need to see. As I wrote in “Hands up if you love parent-teacher,” we nearly always end up seeing the parents of the students who are doing well while rarely do the parents of struggling students show up. That shouldn’t surprise us, as it can’t be denied that parental involvement is a key predictor of student success. Successful students are successful partly because their parents attend parent-teacher conferences. These parents have always been concerned, involved and engaged. They are invested in their children’s success so, of course, we see those parents at each and every conference. These students have always enjoyed significant parental support. I realize, this rule cannot be applied to all cases but it is a useful generalization.
The second problem is how do we make use of the time we have during the conference? Want to know a little about your child’s school life, progress, and development? Ask the teachers who spend several hours each weekday with him. But make it fast – there’s a line-up behind you! A parent-teacher conference is an opportunity to learn about your child’s life at school, how he’s doing, possible areas for improvement, and concerns the teacher might have. The real challenge is getting to that information. Most of my parent-teacher evenings have been spent sitting across the table from a parent with me talking about the importance of study, test preparation, completing assignments, yada, yada, yada. Obviously, these are skills that would improve the success of any student. The parent might ask a question or two before leaving and say something like “Well, we’ll have a talk with her and make sure things improve.” Remember, I hear that statement whether the student has 95% or 35%. Then I repeat the process about 15 times and go home. There seems to be little expectation – let alone hope – that the experience will actually result in any difference for the student, the parent or the teacher. I would be hard pressed to think of a student who made real, sustained improvement as a result of a parent-teacher conference. Having said that, the most productive conferences have always been those in which the student was present and participated.
Let’s be honest – nobody loves parent-teacher conferences. Teachers, parents and students alike, are apprehensive about the whole thing. Some parents have negative memories of their own school experiences and don’t relish the idea of spending an evening with a bunch of teachers. The irony is that the more desperate the situation, the less likely a parent is to want to meet. If a student is doing well it’s easy to sit down and hear a teacher say “You know, she’s just a pleasure to teach and such a hard-working, enthusiastic student.” On the other hand, nobody likes to hear “Your son falls asleep in class, hasn’t completed any assignments, and skipped the last test.”
So then, why are we still doing this? I believe there is some value we can realize from parent-teacher conferences but not if we continue with the traditional approach. At our school, all student grades are available to parents online so there should be no surprises when report cards (come to think of it, why are we still giving those out?) roll out. We should not be spending our time discussing this assignment that wasn’t completed or that assessment on which the student scored poorly. Instead, we should focus on some basic questions that are applicable to all students:
- Does the student pay attention in class?
- Does the student have trouble staying on task or completing assignments?
- Does the student come to class prepared and organized with all required materials?
I think those three simple questions address nearly all possible roadblocks to student success – at least the ones we can easily address in the classroom. Actually, they are really the simple keys to being a successful student. I have a sign in my classroom that reads: “Rules for Success: Show Up, Pay Attention, Do your Work.” What else can we say? Of course, there are also socioeconomic factors or issues of mental or physical health that we cannot so easily address. With the nearly universal access to email, should we be waiting for parent-teacher conferences to address any of these three questions? In the case of our school, parents can follow their child’s progress online and check in with any teacher whenever they feel there is a concern. The teacher can, likewise, send a quick email if an issue arises in the classroom at any time.
In short, I’m convinced that parent-teacher conference evenings are no longer relevant. Would it not be more efficient to have ad hoc meetings with parents to develop useful, practical strategies that a student can use to improve his or her outcome – regardless of their current achievement? Wouldn’t it be helpful to publish a set of common skills for success in any classroom? Wouldn’t it make more sense to make better use of technology to communicate student progress on a more frequent basis? Let’s find better ways to work together toward our common goal – which is to achieve the best outcome for all students.
What do you think? Leave a comment to let me know.