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Parent-Teacher Conferences Without (or with Less) Stress
Judi Fenton

There is no doubt about it, that parent-teacher conferences can be stressful, for both teachers and parents. But they don’t have to be. I must admit, I wasn’t great at conferences until I experienced them from the other side of the desk. When I had my first conference for my (now 10 year old) daughter, I realized that as teachers, we hold all the power in the relationship. After 12 years of conducting conferences, I was terrified to hear about my own daughter. This teacher, who I had grown to trust and like over the two months I had known her, had complete power over my daughter and our future. Even though my husband or I had contact with the school every day, and the teacher probably would have notified us with any problems, I still felt powerless and scared.

My experience as a parent led me to make a few changes in how I conducted conferences. I became much more sensitive towards and showed much more compassion for the family members that came in to hear about their children. Here are a few tips on conferences I’ve learned as a parent, and implement as a teacher.

Make your expectations clear in the conference invitation.
Do you want the student to join his/her parent for the conference or do you like student-free conferences? Do you expect the parent to have reviewed any material before the conference? Are there any questions you want the parent to think of before they come in? Be inviting--make sure families know that you are glad that you will have this time with them. Let families know in writing (in their own language, preferably) if you expect them at an appointed time or within a time range. I have found that making appointments is more respectful and gets me out closer to ending time!

Set up a few comfortable, adult-sized chairs.
Sit at the same level as the family members, not behind your desk. You will send a message that you are all on the same side, the child’s. Hiding behind a desk might make you feel more comfortable, but will make family members feel less comfortable. This nonverbal message can be very powerful.

Ask parents what they are most proud of about their child.
My daughters’ pediatrician taught me this. It is the first thing he asks at every check-up. Before any of the, “I’m concerned about…What should I do about…” we have a discussion about the most recent wonderful things my children have done! I started asking parents this and I have found that it not only relaxes both of us at the beginning of the conference, but also tells me a lot about my students that I would never have known.

Ask parents how they deal with behavioral issues.
My younger daughter can be very demanding. However, she is also eager to please and a rule follower. When I meet with her teachers, I let them know that if they remind her of the rules often she will become their best advocate for reminding other students! By asking parents about their child’s behavior issues, you are respecting that they know their child best and have some expertise about how to handle them.

Start the conference off with something positive about the child.
You’ve probably heard this so many times that it’s a cliché, but nonetheless, it is effective and appropriate. You need to let the parent know that you recognize the positive aspects in even the most difficult child. This includes not only the child’s speech delay, for example, but also her creativity and math aptitude.

Keep the lines of communication with parents and families open throughout the whole year.
Let parents know that you are available to them and that you will contact them whenever necessary, with both good and bad news. Set up a system--a home-school folder, an email address that you check often, a specific “office hour” time once a week when parents are welcome to call you at home, or an early morning time for parents to come in to talk.

With ongoing parent-teacher contact, conferences need not be stressful and, in fact, can be an enjoyable time to catch up with the families of your students.

Please e-mail me with any questions you have. I’ll try to help!


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