Parent-Teacher Conference is Dead! Long Live Parent-Teacher Conference!

Parent-Teacher Conference is Dead! Long Live Parent-Teacher Conference!

By Christopher Lehman, Founding Director (@iChrisLehman)

Here in New York City, we are in Parent-Teacher conference season.

Photo credit: (Creative Commons)

I remember preparing for these as an early career teacher. I always worked hard—pulling all-nighters—to collect “proof.” I wanted to prove to parents why their child was excelling or failing. I wanted to prove that my grading was justified. I wanted to prove that missed homework was a problem, that poor test scores were an issue. I wanted to be ready to prove to parents why their child received the rating he or she did.

I suppose in my mind I thought my rewarding or punishing through a rating would somehow change things. “I just have to help this parent see what is going on here,” I’d fantasize, “and then things will change.”

Now, as a parent, preparing to attend my children’s conference nights, I see things completely differently.

The thing is, I already know how my children are doing. In fact, I’ve known for years.

I already feel my daughter’s love of maps and frustration with word problems. I already know my son’s obsession with vocabulary and need to focus his attention more.

I could give my children a grade in every subject area, before walking into the school building.  Actually, I think my kids could, too.  According to John Hattie’s meta-analysis, almost all kids can. He puts “self-reported grades” at the top of all of his famous “influences” on student achievement. Kids are incredibly good predictors of how they are doing in school.

Which makes me wonder why so many of us obsess over the grade justification portion of these nights.

What I Most Want from Parent-Teacher Conferences

Now, sitting on the other side of that conference table, I want something much different.

It may seem simple, but what I really want is to know my kids are loved. To know that they are seen. And I most want to enter into a professional conversation about what we, the important adults in their lives, can put in place over the next several weeks to continue their growth.

My children have already built a sense of themselves, even at these young ages. Finding out if they are “below, approaching, meeting, or exceeding” any given standard feels moot. To be reminded that math is hard or reading is going super well does little to help us grow as a learning family.

I am reflecting now that the “prove it” from my Grade Book was less important to changing my students lives. I should have, instead, spent that time talking with families. Learning about their children from their years of expertise raising them. Brainstorming together about next steps.

More Ask and Listen

While not all families are the same, what seems to cut across most research on school-family involvement is the critical need to develop trust. When families feel they are respected, that teachers truly care about them and their children, and when they feel safe, children have greater opportunity to excel.

Photo Credit: Public Domain
Photo Credit: Public Domain

Starting Parent-Teacher conversations with questions, instead of “proof” can go along way. Ask about siblings. Ask about what families feel proud about so far this year. What they are most worried about.

Then turn to that old sage: every child is someone’s most precious gift. Treat them that way.

As conference season begins, there are many more ways we can – or perhaps you and your colleagues already are – rethinking Parent-Teacher conferences.  We would love to hear about your ideas and reinventions in the comments section below and feel free to link to your own related posts.

Further reading:

  • This report from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory is detailed and provides many points of reflection for educators and communities on how families interact with schools.
  • This piece from the Harvard Family Research Project describes four emerging trends in reimagining parent-teacher conferences.

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    I just finished 21 of 39 conferences. This year I couldn’t wait to talk to parents. Maybe the change was that I felt like I really KNEW their kids this year. Many I had had for a year or two already or had their siblings. Most of my conferences started with, “I am so glad you’re here! Can I tell you my favorite Parker story?” I made sure to say, “I love your kids, I’m so glad I can see them” or “I love Parker. He always makes me smile.” And Chris, I meant it. I only hope the parents saw how much I really do care about their kids. Looking forward to the other 18 tomorrow!

  2. amyludwigvanderwater

    Yes. Yes. Yes. To be loved. To be heard. To be understood. We all wish for this and wish for this for our children. As an experienced teacher, I still find myself nervous and hopeful at the conferences for my own children, hopeful that the teacher will have noticed this or that, that the teacher will care deeply, that the teacher will not feel too rushed to listen. Being seen and loved helps all of us learn. Time. Love. Human connection. Yes. xo

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