Before the Conference
Send a personal letter to each parent to confirm the day, time, and place of the conference. Inform parents ahead of time about the purpose of the conference. Gather file folders or portfolios of each student's work. Be sure your schedule is coordinated with other teachers in the school. Many parents will have more than one child in school and need sufficient time with each teacher.
If necessary, make arrangements for an interpreter for non-English-speaking parents. Review notes on each student's behavior, academic progress, and interactions with peers. Establish no more than two or three concerns or issues. More than that will discourage most parents. Clarify ahead of time who, exactly, will be attending each conference. Is it the child's biological parents, a relative, a guardian, a grandparent, a foster parent, or who? Check and double-check names.
Invite parents to bring a list of questions, issues, or concerns. Have sample textbooks readily available. Establish a waiting area outside your classroom. For reasons of confidentiality, you only want to meet with one set of parents at a time.
Don't conduct a parent-teacher conference from behind your desk. A teacher's desk is sometimes referred to as “power furniture,” and it tends to inhibit conversation and makes many parents uncomfortable (perhaps a throwback to their days as a student). Instead, conduct your conferences at a table. Don't sit across from parents; instead, sit on the same side of the table as your guests. You will discover heightened levels of conversation and “comfortableness” on the part of parents this way.
During the Conference
Greet parents in a positive manner with a smile and a handshake. Keep in mind that a well-run parent-teacher conference focuses in on the following “must do's” every time:
Provide parents with specific academic information.
Invite and obtain additional information from parents.
Listen carefully to parents. If you're nervous, you will tend to “take over” the conversation—by as much as 90 percent. Try for a 50-50 balance.
Combine your perceptions and their observations into a workable plan of action. Ask for parent ideas, and use those ideas in addressing challenging situations.
Let parents know that you are always available for follow-up (phone calls, personal meetings, etc.).
When talking to parents, always remember: show, don't tell. Provide specific examples of a student's work or behavior rather than labels or adjectives. Instead of saying, “Frankie is poor in math,” paint a clear picture for Frankie's parents: “Last week Frankie struggled when we were learning to add two-digit numbers, and he didn't finish his assignment.” Always provide parents with concrete examples rather than very broad generalities.
If you are sharing some negative information with parents, be sure you “sandwich” it. Begin with some positive information, then share the negative information, and conclude with another piece of positive information.
Always look for common solutions (“I understand your concern with Carmelita. Let's see if we can work on this together”). Have some duplicated resource sheets available for parents. These may include (but aren't limited to) the following: a list of community social service agencies, a homework help line, a list of private tutors in the community, websites for homework help, etc.
Always use “active listening” skills. If a parent says something about the child, try to use some of the parent's words in your response. For example, if Mr. Brown says, “Yeah, Tommie always seems to be shy whenever he's around other people.” You say, “I understand that Tommie is hesitant to talk with other people—that sometimes happens in class. Perhaps I could put him in a smaller group so he will be less inhibited.” By using active listening, you help build positive bridges of communication essential in any good conference.
Don't be afraid to ask for parent input or feedback (“By the way, Mr. Wilson, how have you handled Bobbie's silliness at home?”). By the same token, never give parents commands (“You should …” “You must …”) Rather, offer concrete and specific suggestions in the form of an invitation (“Mrs. Harper, based on our conversation this evening, I'm wondering if you and Michelle could spend an additional 10 minutes a night on her spelling words?”). It is far better to “invite” parents to become part of the solution than “tell” them what they should or should not do.
Summarize some of the major points, and clarify any action that will be taken. Most important, always end a conference on a positive note! Don't just dismiss parents from the table. Stand up with them and personally escort them to the door with a smile, a handshake, and a “Thank you for coming.”
After the Conference
Save a few minutes after each conference to jot down a couple notes. Don't take notes during the conference—it tends to inhibit many parents and makes eye-to-eye conversation difficult. Record your observations, perceptions, and suggestions on a 3×5 index card with the student's name at the top. File these in a recipe box for later reference.
Plan for some “decompression time” between conferences. You need time to gather your thoughts, regroup, and get ready for the next conference. A long string of back-to-back conferences will only add to your stress and increase your anxiety.
Be sure to follow up (as necessary) with phone calls, notes, messages, or letters to every parent, including those who didn't attend (“I'm sorry I missed you at the parent-teacher conferences last week. May I call you for a personal meeting?”). Immediate feedback is necessary to ensure parent cooperation and participationin any shared solutions.