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For the New Teacher

About this Daily Classroom Special
For the New Teacher was written by Pam Tyrrell, a teacher at Jefferson Montessori Campus, Dayton, Ohio. Designed to aid entry level teachers, topics focus on issues and concerns commonly expressed by the neophyte teacher. For more new teacher oriented articles, make sure to check out New Teachers Online.

Conquering the Jitters

The school year is well established and things are running more or less as you expected. Just when everything is settled, it arrives. Yes, folks, it's Parent-Teacher Conference Time!

As this time approaches, it is not unusual for a teacher with many years of experience to have "jitters." When parents come in, anything can happen, especially when a child is not progressing academically, or has had discipline problems. The wise teacher plans ahead for conferences and has all materials assembled well in advance.

Parent-Teacher conferences usually occur around the time report cards are sent home. Tensions may be high, and tempers may flare when grades do not seem to coincide with what parents expect from their children.

Let's not have any illusions. Fewer teachers are actually talking with 'rents--short for parents--about the work a child is doing, 'rents may not have a clue about how well (or poorly) their children are doing. Students know what their parents want to see, and may destroy work rather than have parents know how poorly they are doing. Even letters sent by US Mail are not guaranteed--they are easily intercepted and destroyed. Sadly, in these busy times, parents may not take the time to focus on their children's education, so 'rent-teacher conferences are often the first time during an academic year that parents really pay attention to how well their children are doing in school.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Prepare for conferences the way you would prepare for an eagerly anticipated event. Gather together student work samples and lace them in a folder. Include the best examples of their work, and also examples of "typical" daily work.

Set up a table, with several chairs, in case more than one family member comes for the conference. Take a moment to decide if you want children present during conferences. Check on school/district policy, and if children are not to be included during conferences, find out how children are accommodated when they come with their parents. Is there a "child care" area set-up, or are children expected to sit in the hallway?

Some teachers want the student to be present during conference, but do not want siblings listening in. Depending on your school's stance, consider setting up an area within the classroom that has a few activities for many ages of children. Colored chalk at the board is usually a hit with children, as are puzzles, big books, building blocks, and classroom pets. I turn on a "noisemaker" (radio, stereo, cassette player) and also have my classroom computer on. Position the activity center far enough away from the conference table so conversation is not easily monitored, and so that it is within eyesight for safety's sake. Toddlers usually stay with their parents, as most classrooms are not "baby proofed."

On a table outside the door, place a sign-in sheet, and any other information you want parents to have, along with several chairs. Be sure to have a large sign with your name and room number placed by your door. I have a bell on the table, and a note that asks parents to ring it when they get there so I know there is someone waiting.

Many teachers keep their conference table bare, except for a pencil, pen, and a notebook for jotting things down during the conference (use a clean sheet for each student, please!). On a table slightly behind and to one side of them, they put copies of the texts the students are using, their grade book, student folders, and copies of the materials offered outside the door.

Some schools schedule conference times, some just have an "open conference" time. Whatever method your school employs, be sure to meet each parent with a smile and a firm handshake, if it's appropriate. (I tried to shake one father's hand, but he told me it was not his custom to touch any woman, except his wife.) If you do schedule conference times, don't be surprised if parents show up, early, late, or not at all. Do your best to stay on your schedule, even if it means rescheduling a parent who is ten minutes late for a scheduled 15-minute conference.

During your conference, try to keep chit-chat to a minimum. [Cut to the chase: Go To Pam's 10-minute script] I like to start conferences with a positive statement about the student, then display textbooks as I go over subjects taught in the classroom. I offer parents a copy of district grade level goals, and curriculum to be covered, and then get right to the report card. There are books available at "teacher stores" which offer suggestions on wording for report card comments. I go over each grade, but do not touch the grade book, unless parents challenge me to "prove" a grade. (I keep all grades statistically, which makes it easy to total at the end of each quarter.)

Finally, I tell the parents what I believe are their child's strengths, as well as talk about areas their child has weaknesses in. Before they leave, I go over ways they can help their child at home. These suggestions are rather generic, and they are typed up and given to the parents to take home. Whatever I send home is written as close to a fourth grade vocabulary as I can get, since I want parents of all abilities to understand what I'm trying to communicate with them. In cases where parents are not fluent in English, I've had papers translated, and this year I asked an interpreter for the deaf to be available for one conference.

My part of the conference lasts no more than 10 minutes, the last five are set aside for parent questions, concerns. If no one is waiting, conferences can be lengthened. [What about "problem conference?" Click here.]

One frustration on conference day is the number of parents who sign up for a conference, and then fail to show up. During "down" time, I work on materials, clean the room, re-do bulletin boards, etc. Prior to conference day, I compose a "form letter" expressing regret that parents were unable to attend, and ask them to call to reschedule. At the end of the day, I fill in the blanks, stuff a letter in an envelope, slap a mailing label on it, and put it in the school's outgoing mail. With luck, it will reach the parents the next day, and they will reschedule.

At the end of Parent-Teacher conference day, I go home and soak in a hot tub. I try very hard to do no school work at home, and usually go to bed early. Conferences are rewarding opportunities to get to know more about your students. They are also exhausting. After your conferences, be good to yourself. You've done the best you could, you'll learn from your mistakes, and after all, "tomorrow is another day!"

10 minute "script"

"Good morning, Mr. & Mrs. Smith" I'm so happy you could come today. John is a lovely child. He works very hard, and I'm anxious to show you how he has improved in math.

"These are the textbooks we are using this year. As you can see, we have math, reading, English, social studies, science, and spelling books. I've asked the children to take their books home and cover them to protect them. If you notice book covers are torn, would you please help John recover them?....Thank you.

Let's look at John's report card. In his personal development, John is making good progress. He makes friends and gets along well with the boys and girls in our classroom. As you know, I've noticed he has a short temper, and has been known to push in line, but we've been working on this, and it happens less often, now. I'd like to thank you again for talking to him last month, after I called you about this problem. It has helped him to know that you expect him to behave in school.

John's work habits are good. He completes his assignments on time, and they are done neatly. Here are some samples of classroom work. You can see he writes clearly, and his work is easy to follow. This is his social studies project on the Hoover Dam. We researched in the library for this. He put it together very well.

"John has earned a B in reading. He reads well orally, but he is having trouble remembering what he read. I'll have some suggestions for you to help him get over this problem.

"John's spelling grade is a C. He averaged a 74 on his tests.

"English, social studies and science are subjects John enjoys. He got a B in these areas. We have worked on adverbial phrases, studied the southwestern states and gone over the scientific process this quarter.

"Math is John's weakness. He started out very poorly. He had not mastered his multiplication, or division facts, and borrowing and carrying in addition and subtraction were difficult for him. His first test grade was a D. He has been working on the computer to memorize his math facts, and he has a peer tutor who does math with him. His test scores are going up. Here is last week's test, a B! He's doing better on math fact timed tests, too. His grade this quarter is a C-. He may be disappointed, but keep encouraging him to do his best.

"Art, Music and PE teachers have each given him a Satisfactory this quarter, and John's attendance has been good, 41 out of 43 days. He has not been tardy. I'm glad John is in our classroom. He certainly knows a lot about taking care of plants! Did you know he makes sure ours are watered and pruned?

"Do you have any questions or concerns?...

"Before you go, here is a list of things you can do to help John at home. I mentioned he is having problems remembering what he has read. You can help by having him read a paragraph out-loud to you and then asking him a question about what he read. If he hesitates, have him re-read the section silently, looking for the answer. Remind him, the answer is in the paragraph!

"Thank you again for coming. If you have any questions, please call me at the school. You have a lovely child!"

What about a "problem" conference?

If you believe you will have problems with a specific family, ask your administrator to be available to assist you, or see if you can hold that conference near the office. If this is not possible, alert the teacher next door to you to the possibility of trouble, and ask them to listen for signs of distress.

If a conference starts to get "ugly" it is perfectly fine to suggest that everyone needs to take a breath and reschedule. You can also suggest parents go to the office and arrange for a "three-way" conference: parent, teacher and administrator.

Above all else, always try to remain detached, especially if parents become "excited." It is preferable to lower your voice level than to start yelling back. Use "I statements," such as "I understand your concern," "I can see how you might get that impression," "I can see this is bothering you," and offer ways to settle them down. "We can work together to help your child," "Maybe I can say this a better way," "This would bother me, too." Keep the focus on their child, and let them know that you value their concerns and are willing to work with them to help their child.

Form Letter

(Use letterhead if possible, ask for it from the school's secretary)


Dear __________ ,

I'm so sorry you were unable to attend our______ conference today. It is re-scheduled for __________. It is my pleasure to have _________ in our classroom. I have lots of information to share with you about _________'s work. These are the things which were sent home with parents. I hope you'll look them over, and give me a call at the school. Our number is _________ I know we can find a time that is more convenient for you.



Make sure to check out Kristi Thomas's Back to School Night for more on this subject.


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