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NYC Helpline: How To: Work with Students' Families
How to Handle Parent-Teacher Conferences Allison Demas

Parent Teacher Conferences are quickly coming upon us. For many teachers this is the first time you will be meeting the parents and it is the initiation of a very important working relationship. This means that within a few short minutes you are going to have to: make the parents feel welcome, tell them everything they need to know about their child's academic and social progress, answer any questions or concerns they may have, not offend any parents, afford the same time and courtesy to every other parent waiting and, of course, not keep them waiting too long. What to do, what to do? 

Presentation:
Your classroom should be clean, appealing and reflective of the hard work that is conducted there. You can arrange a table at the front of your classroom to display some of the work your class has completed. You could set out a photograph album, a class book, projects from a recent course of study, or an array of books the students use. When parents enter your classroom, their attention should be drawn to this table and not the conference taking place further inside the room. At the front of the table, place a dated sign-in sheet, pens and a note requesting parents to sign-in. 

Scheduling:
You need to remember that you and the parent you are meeting have something very important in common. You share a child and you both have the best interest of that child at heart. Scheduling an appointment for a working parent in the middle of the afternoon can be counterproductive. The parent might not be able to get out of work, may be late, thereby ruining your schedule, and may be annoyed at you for scheduling the meeting in the middle of the work day. Instead of marking the start of a working relationship, this may create an adversarial one. 

If possible, arrange scheduled appointments for your meetings. Divide the amount of time you have for conferences by the number of students. This will tell you how much time you will need for each meeting. Then block out the appointment times and send home notes for each parent with the date and time of the appointment. 

If you know you will need more time with one parent more than others, block a longer time period for that parent. If you have siblings, afford the parents the same time for each child. If you have two days for conferences (afternoon and evening), send home a questionnaire asking parents which time period is most convenient for them. This will help you arrange your appointments so that it is the most efficient use of your time.

Pacing is important. Rehearse what you need to say and make sure you can get to everything within your time allotment. You want to come across as knowledgeable, professional and self-assured. You may choose to use a timer, although this feels like playing Beat the Clock. 

If you are not able to schedule appointments, you can have numbered index cards in a basket or library pocket next to your sign-in sheet. Post a notice requesting parents to "Please sign in and take a number." If you choose this approach then make sure you take the numbered card from the parents as you meet with them. This avoids the confusion of a parent taking a number that has been returned to the basket. 

Preparation: 
Since your time is limited, you need to use it well. Prepare an agenda for yourself, prioritizing the topics you need to discuss. These should be general topics appropriate for all your students. You could keep this on your desk, if this is where your conferences will take place, or else on a clipboard you can carry with you. 

Always start your meetings on a positive note. Invite the parent to sit down and begin by complementing the student. Even if this seems difficult find something positive to say.
It is a good idea to create a folder for each student in your class. This should contain any relevant information pertaining to that student, i.e.. tests, homework assignments, completed assignments, incomplete assignments, attendance records. Documentation is necessary to substantiate any remarks made to the parents. A parent may be unaware that his/her child has been arriving late to school. Showing the late passes for the child provides the proof. Keep copies of all notes sent home and a record of any phone calls that may have been made, especially if you have had to leave a message on an answering machine. Messages can be erased.

Ending the conversation:
How you end your meeting is as important as how you begin it. Even with constraints of time you do not want to rush the ending. As you go through your agenda, slowly wind down the tone of the meeting. Inquire if the parents have any questions they need to address. Be sure to thank the parents for meeting with you. Reiterate that you both have the best interest of the child in common. 

If the meeting requires a follow-up, you might want to take the opportunity to schedule another meeting. If this is not possible, you can explain that you will call the parents or send a letter with times for possible meetings. If the follow-up requires action on your part (i.e. referral to a speech therapist, behavior chart, etc.) explain when you will take the action and how you will notify the parent. An important note regarding follow-up actions after the conferences: If you say you are going to do something, then do it. An empty promise serves no purpose for anyone involved.

It is especially important to have a positive ending if it was a difficult conference. If you have had to be the bearer of bad news the parents may be surprised, shocked and embarrassed. This puts them at a disadvantage and may work against you. You need the parents to leave with a positive feeling about both you and their child's academic situation (even if the student's current academic situation is not a good one). The parents need to know that you are trying to do the best for their child, and you need parental support in order to do the best for their child and every other child in your class.

These are some basic tips that can help you survive your first encounter with Parent Teacher Conferences. Be confident, be pleasant and above all be prepared.

 

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