The small room where the conference was held had no table. The participants sat in chairs placed around the perimeter of the room, reminiscent of the way Saudi sheiks greet their visitors. Each teacher opened their respective grade book and listed missing assignments and low test grades, and then offered the advice that “Johnny” needed to do his homework, study for tests, and pay attention in class. The mother, eyes lowered, purse clutched tightly in her lap, seemed to be bracing for a blow as each teacher delivered the news that her son wasn’t making the grade in any class. I’m ashamed to say that when my turn came, I followed the example of my colleagues. When the conference ended I had the uneasy feeling that I had participated in a mugging.
Some version of this scenario was repeated in every conference I attended until I arrived at Brookside Middle School in Sarasota, Florida. I was assigned to a team of wonderful teachers led by Steve Batchelor. Steve had a totally different approach to parent conferences. He opened every conference by making introductions and assuring that the parents knew each teacher by name and subject area. He then asked parents to share what their concerns were and listened with sincerity to what the parents had to say. Although he had his grade book, it was never opened until the parent asked about grades or until the issue of grades became central to finding ways to help the child succeed. Most of the conferences I attended with Steve ended with smiles, laughter, handshakes, and a plan of action to help the student achieve success.
Over the years, I have sought to develop Steve’s sensitive approach to working with the families of the children I teach. Becoming a parent myself and attending a few unproductive conferences, (with my eyes lowered and my purse clutched tightly in my lap), helped crystallize the way I think about parent conferencing. I have come to believe that meeting with parents is an opportunity to fulfill my spiritual mission as a teacher. Through these meetings, I get a chance to connect with families and make a positive difference in the lives of the children I teach.
I open each conference with introductions, and never assume the parents know all the teachers. Then I ask the parent to begin the conference by sharing their concerns or observations. I’m sure to convey to the parent that as a teacher, I am working as their partner in helping to educate their child. I respect parents. I go into every conference believing that even the least advantaged parent loves their child and is trying to be the best parent they can be. I reserve any other judgment until I know otherwise. I acknowledge the parent’s role as their child’s first teacher, and communicate to the parent that I see them as the expert on their child.
So many parents come into parent/teacher conferences in a defensive mode. No doubt this comes from their previous experience or just the stirring up of old memories of their school days when they had little authority over their own lives. I want to disarm these parents. Sometimes it’s my error that’s causing the defensive attitude. If so, I’m not afraid to admit when I’ve made a mistake. Teachers make hundreds of decisions each day. Once in a while I’m bound to make a bad one. I admit this and look for ways to make corrections. This honesty has never failed to help build a positive relationship with parents.
Many times in middle school, students attend the conference. Whenever they do, I recognize their discomfort and make every effort to communicate to them how much they are valued by their parents and teachers. There is nothing more rewarding than watching a child who thought his teachers couldn’t “see” him suddenly recognize he is surrounded by adults who truly care about him and his success.
It is important that each conference concludes with a plan of action. What will each participant agree to do to bring about the changes needed? The plan everyone agrees to should be realistic. A few days after the conference, it’s a great idea to phone home or send an email to report on progress and show parents I'm are holding up my end of the bargain. The effort I show helps the parent and the child follow through at home.
In every parent conference, I attempt to reveal to the parent my sense of who their child is and who their child is trying to become. Each morning when parents send their son or daughter off to my classroom, they are sending me the most important part of their lives. I want parents to know that I get it, and I’m honored to be a part of their efforts to raise the best human being possible.
All of this insight into building successful relationships with my students and their families began in the early stages of my career with the fortuitous circumstance of working with an experienced and compassionate teacher like Steve. Just as I hope to have a positive impact on my students, Steve has had a lasting and very positive impact on my life as a teacher.