Making the most of conferences

A reader suggested I write a blog post on parent-teacher conferences. I like it when people suggest topics so I dug in!

I taught both middle and high school, so while I’m confident writing about those age levels and making suggestions, I thought I should enlist a little help about the primary grades. I reached out to a friend who is in her 21st year of teaching kindergarten in Annandale, Minnesota – Katie Zuehlke.

Katie Zuehlke teaches kindergarten in Annandale, Minnesota.

Though there are some differences in how we would go about preparing for conferences, much of it was the same. Clearly, a primary teacher has fewer students and teaches them many content areas. Those conferences tend to be a bit longer, but still are quite short – Katie said only recently were they able to bump them up from 15 to 20 minutes. Regardless of age, much of our advice would be similar with the differences primarily in the details.

Strong start

Katie talked about the importance of taking time to do an “Explore Kindergarten Night” in mid-September where families come to the school together. It’s a way to start the parent-teacher relationship, along with everything else you are doing to communicate: newsletters, phone calls, occasional notes home, and emails.

The schools I taught at had fall open houses and that was a chance to meet some families, but I realize that if the school isn’t hosting an event, it becomes challenging, especially if you have 150 or more students. The other methods of communication are still there though, so if you don’t meet them all at the beginning of the year or semester, there are plenty of ways to communicate and begin a relationship.

Why put effort into so much communication? I think Katie said it well: “I never have surprises at conferences. I feel it is worth addressing any major issues well before conferences.”

The team

I found that introducing myself as a member of a team of people who wanted to help a person’s child was a good way to start a relationship. Most of the time, “the team” consisted of me, the student, one or two parents/guardians, and all of the student’s other teachers. We became partners and shared the same goal: student success. Success could mean something different for different students, of course.

Katie agreed saying the early communication “creates a trust and understanding that we are ‘all in this together’ and makes conferences less stressful and more of a conversation.”

It can mean more messages, but it pays off. In middle and high school, that can look like several newsletters or updates with just a few individual messages. At one point, I set a goal of a certain number of phone calls or emails home a week. It was a way to keep on top of concerns, but also a reminder at the end of the week to connect about some of the successes I was seeing.  Katie is in a smaller district and has been able to get to know families really well over the years. “I love the rich relationships I develop with families and am lucky to often have had 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 – is my record – siblings from one family. I love it!”

Unfortunately, sometimes some members of the team didn’t seem interested in the goal. The student, for example, might not be interested in being on the team. As a group of teachers, with the help of parents/guardians, the task is to show the student the value of the team and our shared goal. Usually someone on the team would be able to reach the student, show them how many people were supporting them, and help motivate them to “join the team.”

If other teachers or parents/guardians aren’t focused on the goal, it can be detrimental to the student’s achievements. It’s really hard when that happens, but hopefully the other members of the team can overcome some of the negativity the student might be experiencing and make school, first and foremost, a safe place to be.

Involve the student

When I taught 10th grade, I encouraged my students attend conferences and to find a “representative” to bring with them. If nobody could come on their behalf, I would tell them to come alone. I told them I would have an adult conversation with them about their progress – after all, they were the ones who truly decided what they would or would not do. I had some surprising conversations with my students that way. Usually they came to talk to me because they wanted to – sometimes because there was a problem. I was able to ask them questions about the class, the assignments, the expectations, their goals, and get answers that were sometimes more thoughtful than when their friends were nearby.

If a student came with a parent/guardian or other representative, I involved the student as much as possible. In fact, I would hand the student their grade sheet and ask them to explain the assignments, assessments and scores to their parents. Occasionally I would ask a question to guide their description or interject a detail, but I mostly left it up to the student.

Student-led conferences work better for middle elementary school through middle school and at schools where you are able to schedule the conference. For students in K-2, Katie said students can still be involved. She said most “don’t do student-led, but when students do attend everything we share is appropriate for them to hear. Often they even take a role in the conversation.”

What to show from Campus

For middle and high school age students, I liked to print out the Student Summary Report, one student per page. This way, if conferences are held in the cafeteria and had

Student Summary Report – showing Assignment Detail

problems getting online or were nowhere near an outlet, I always had information available and something for the parent/guardian to walk away with. It also gave me something to point to or write on as I spoke. If there was an interpreter, having some of the information printed out was helpful for them as well. It helps to break the information into smaller pieces and give the interpreter information to refer to. At the end of conferences, I always knew what parents/guardians I didn’t talk to and I could sort the papers into piles of those I would need to call the following day or those I would send home with the student.

For the younger students, Katie said teachers she works with print out the

This is an example of a standards-based Report Card. Report Card templates are formatted by school/district.

Report Card. She might occasionally need to look up some attendance information too, but the main thing is having a copy of the Report Card. She said in kindergarten, “we explain quite a bit about the report card since it is the first ‘formal’ report card for these kids.”

If you don’t want to generate a report but want to show a single student on your Grade Book screen, expand the student and hide others.

Campus Messenger is also one way to communicate with students and parents/guardians. You can create a template to quickly send reoccurring messages.

For information on all reports available, visit Campus Community.

Other Tips/ideas

  • Make sure your grades/scores/marks are all up to date.
  • Have student work samples to support those grades/scores/marks in case you need them. In kindergarten, Katie has a portfolio of work samples, mainly writing.
  • Start the conference with something positive. If the student was old enough to have multiple teachers and was a bit of a handful, it’s possible that the parent/guardian has not heard a positive thing from anyone before they get to you. That can’t feel good. There’s always something positive to say.
  • Have ideas for things the student could work on to improve. Unless you fear the parent might push the child too much, think of ways for students to get more out of school even if they are at the top of the class. There are always ways for a student to challenge him or herself, whether it’s through a side project, working ahead at their own pace, tutoring, or something else.
  • Prior to conferences, generate a strengths and areas of focus so you have ideas ready to share with parents.
  • Have students complete a self-evaluation. Katie said in kindergarten this is a yes, no, sometimes sheet with a smile, straight, and sad face. Questions could be “I am a strong reader,” “I always do my best work, “I am a good friend to everyone.”
  • Videos
    • For younger students videos of a student reading a story they have written or reading a leveled reader will provide excellent talking points for strengths and areas of focus. Katie said “I can make suggestions for at home and ways families can encourage different reading and writing strategies.”
    • For older students, videos can be just as informative. A student could explain a project as part of an assignment and you can use the video as a way to explain what the students are studying.
  • Provide examples of various home-school connections that will be coming up later in the year. Examples for younger students: sight word practice, take home books, etc. Katie said, “I want to explain these to parents first-hand so families have a clear understanding of what’s ahead.”
  • If you send a conference reminder home, have a spot where parents can list questions or topics they want addressed at the conference. Katie said “I get these sheets back before conferences and that way I can prepare for any questions or topics. At conferences, we always talk about these areas right away – along with any other questions parents have.”
  • Set a timer and let parents know why: you can’t get behind! Katie said, “I set it with 2 minutes to spare so we can wrap things up.”
  • If you are in your classroom, keep the door closed. Parents are often waiting for the next conference right outside the door and the information shared doesn’t always need to be heard by others.
  • Katie said, “at my conference table, I keep pens, sticky notes and Kleenexes!”
  • Katie also has a digital picture frame on a table in the hall so families can view photos while they wait. She also has sticky notes in the hall that say, “I am proud of you because …” and parents fill out the sticky note and put it inside their child’s locker.

What are your tips for other teachers?

I know I don’t have all the answers, so what things do you do for parent-teacher conferences that work? Leave a comment or send me a message and we can compile a list of ideas for other teachers to try.

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