Surviving and Thriving in Springtime Conferences

By Matthew Olinski — It’s about time for the spring conferences at schools in the Milwaukee area.

I remember my apprehension at conferences early in my career. I have witnessed my fair share of bad conferences involving other colleagues and have had a few negative experiences myself. My goal today is to help out those who may be engaging in their first parent teacher conferences.Dialog

I remember a coworker of mine who had an absolutely irate parent. It was his first year in the district, and the parent actually started swearing at him during the conferences.  My coworker, to his credit, did not engage this behavior, but simply said that the conference would have to be continued at a later time when another person could be present to help answer some questions that this parent felt weren’t being addressed by the teacher.

The negative side to this story is that the coworker brought his mentor teacher in, a veteran of over 25 years, during the subsequent conference and it only got worse. The parent literally challenged the teacher to a fight. This is an extreme example that happens so rarely, that its rarity is the reason why it stands out in my mind.  The lesson to be brought back here is that the teacher kept his cool and did not lose his temper. It was difficult for him to not take the parent’s comments and actions personally, but he learned a great deal himself from that experience.

Most parents will not behave in that manner. Some however, have cried, when I talk to them about their student’s performance.  It seems that they have been getting the same message from each of their teachers. This is difficult for me, as the bearer of bad news.  A way to alleviate this potential situation is to have been communicating with parents much more frequently prior to the actual conferences. The one parent who I remember crying in front of me had been hearing how her son had been not doing any homework for the first quarter from each of his teachers

The best approach is to have your materials and grades clearly laid out so the parents can see exactly what your expectations have been from the start of the class.  This is a good way to reacquaint the parents with your grading policies and classroom practices (because you’ve told them on a few occasions before the conferences).   By doing this, you have also prevented yourself from being set up for questions about your own preparedness.

Conferences are also a good time to discuss other observations about their children.  Parents also like to hear if their children are doing well socially (and several parents have concerns that their children are fitting in).   Another topic of conversation, at least at the high school level, is your recommendations about the future classes their child might do well in.  Some parents do not know what options are available or do not have the experience to recommend classes.

As a rule, I end every conference with something positive about the student. There is always something positive to say about your students.  Parents need to know the reality, but they don’t want to be bombarded by only negative if that is the situation.  For the most part, parents have poured their soul into raising that child, and hearing only negatives could make them feel like a failure as apparent.

Remember that conferences should be a two way dialogue. Parents should ask you questions and you should respond with information. The best conferences I have had are those in which the parents and I discuss more than just the grade on the report card.  Some parents may be in a rush, so this isn’t an option every time, but you want that parent on your side. This is a good way of making that happen.

Good Luck and have fun!

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