Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Educators: Balancing Give and Gain in Parent-Teacher Conferences

    Fall is in full swing – that means midterms for college kids and fall break for most K-12 students. This time of year brings some homework for parents, too.

    Many schools offer mom and dad the chance to meet with their child’s instructors around the midpoint of first semester. Every district handles parent-teacher conferences differently, as do families. But the research is clear: parents show up. According to the most recent available data from nonprofit data bank Child Trends, nearly 9 in 10 parents attend parent-teacher conferences each year.

    Brittany McKee helps her sons Gage and Jayce Meza complete the craft that's part of the parent engagement night at Edgewood Primary School in Ellettesville.

    Nearly 9 in 10 parents attend conferences with their children’s teachers each year, according to Child Trends. (Photo Credit: Bill Shaw/WTIU News)

    And often, if its a couple’s first child – or a teacher’s first year at the school – the whole encounter can be pretty nerve-wracking.

    All this week, StateImpact will take a closer look at parent-teacher conferences and talking to experts about how to make them less stressful and more impactful.

    First up, how can teachers maximize their interactions for parents, as well as for their own purposes in the classroom?

    For advice, we turned to Kathy Nimmer, Indiana’s 2015 Teacher of the Year. She has a few simple tips for teachers:

    1. Do your homework

    For the most part, parents only hear what their child remembers – or decides – to tell them about their day at school. As the teacher, Nimmer says, you should come to the discussion armed with a full picture of what you see coming from the student.

    “When I began conferences I took a whole Saturday afternoon to go through all of my students, look over their grades and make some notes on each individual,” Nimmer says.

    That includes academic performance as well as pertinent social information, Nimmer adds. She says teachers’ should also take note of any grade patterns or inconsistencies, and any trouble spots they may have noticed the student might need extra help with.

    2. Start with the positive

    Before diving into any gray area, it’s always good to reassure parents that their child is progressing. Nimmer says offering honest, candid feedback on the things their child has done well so far is a great way to start.

    “Every student has good things and those things need to be acknowledged and not just as filler but as true, authentic parts of that individual,” Nimmer says. “That parent will know that you are paying attention to that individual and that you know the child as a person and not just a name in the grade book.”

    Even body language counts in these early instances, Nimmer adds.

    “I always start with a smile, thank you, I enjoy having so-and-so in class,” Nimmer offers. “The eye contact, the good posture, no crossed arms…all of those positive things for a business meeting are good for that conference as well.”

    3. Stay composed

    Sometimes you’ll have to touch on topics that can be a bit uncomfortable, and may elicit reactions from parents that you didn’t expect. Nimmer advises teachers to stay calm and aim to make the conversations productive, not a tug-of-war.

    “Don’t take anything personally if the conversation gets tense, because the parent just wants what’s best for the child as well, but they might not have the best way to express that desire,” she says. 

    Nimmer adds that having proactive plans of ways to move forward can help ease the tension.

    “So if you say, ‘this child is doing poorly on vocab[ulary] tests,’ have at least some thought on how that can be made better,” Nimmer offers. “Suggest things like flash cards, or writing the words over and over, or practicing saying the words at dinner.”

    4. Use the meetings as a tool

    Don’t forget: these are called parent-teacher conferences for a reason – the educator is an equally important part of the equation!

    In their “Tip Sheet for Teachers,” researchers from the Harvard Family Research Project remind instructors that these meetings should be a two-way conversation:

    The parent–teacher conference is not only an opportunity for parents to learn from you, but for you to learn from them. Nobody knows your students better than their families. Their insights into their child’s strengths and needs, learning styles, and nonschool learning opportunities can help you improve your instructional methods. Your efforts to better understand their aspirations and perspectives make parents feel respected and build trust with them.

    Nimmer says the meetings became a highlight for her because it was a chance to put the pieces together. 

    “I see these beautiful young people in class and don’t know what their home lives are like,” she says. “Certainly in a short conference I can’t get that entire picture, but I certainly can learn more about what makes them tick because of what situations are around them at home.”

    Parents: tomorrow it’s your turn! We’ll show you some tips & tricks the experts have told us for making the most of your meeting with the teacher.


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