It is deep fall—daylight savings time has ended, football is the national pastime…and in nearly every school in America, teachers and parents are scheduling parent-teacher conferences. There are more than 50 million school-age children in the United States. Estimating that a quarter of those students have teachers who sit down with a parent or guardian for 30 minutes for a parent-teacher conference, educators and guardians spend between 6 and 7 million hours in parent-teacher conferences.
And yet, family members and educators wonder: how useful are these important and short interactions? What can be accomplished? What is learned? Given the time invested, and the critical importance of these meetings, we at Panorama created the Parent-Teacher Conference Agenda Packet to help parents and teachers gain as much as possible from their time together.
“Parents need to know they can trust me,” says Marc Lefebvre, a high school physics teacher in Massachusetts. “That is what we accomplish.”
As a parent, I would like to get three things out of my annual, 20-minute meeting with my daughter’s teacher: Is my daughter on track academically? Is she behaving as she should? And what can I do at home to further support her learning so she can thrive?
Often, I go into meetings without much of an idea what my daughter’s teachers want to accomplish. There typically is no agenda for these meetings or any pre-reading. A Panorama colleague who is a former teacher reflected that she worked in a highly functioning school that “had rubrics and frameworks for everything.” Yet teachers in this school received no guidance for parent teacher conferences.
There is a chance to do more. Given the immense importance of parent engagement in successful outcomes for children, there is ample reason to think about parent-teacher conferences differently.
Drawing on my experience as a school board member, working on school and district improvement in various capacities, as a parent, and now as Director of Client Success at Panorama, I recommend that families and teachers approach parent-teacher conferences as one event in an ongoing relationship. This relationship, and the conversation at the parent-teacher conference, is enriched immensely by preparation beforehand and follow-up afterward.
As a first step, teachers reach out to parents with a note conveying their enthusiasm for the upcoming conference and some questions—or prompts—to help everyone think a little more about these important conversations. These prompts help teachers and parents develop a shared understanding of what we want to accomplish together. These prompts fall under three major categories:
- How is my student doing academically in this class?
- How is my student doing socially and behaviorally in this class?
- What next steps can I take to support my child's success in this class?
This outline establishes clarity and a framework for what to discuss. If we view this annual conference as one touch point in an ongoing conversation, rather than a single touchpoint, the shared framework established during the parent-teacher conference continues to support the relationship throughout the year. Conversations between parents and teachers might occur on email, through blogs, via webpage posts, and through feedback surveys.
Many teachers do view their relationships with families as ongoing, yet the parent-teacher conferences I have had thus far don’t make this explicit—or set many expectations for me in terms of how I should be involved in this ongoing conversation. To help set the stage for ongoing communication, teachers can make sure parents walk away with correct web page addresses, listserv addresses, cell phone numbers, and whatever other means you want to use to communicate. Teachers can invite parents to bring in their phones or devices and help them set up and bookmark the right links during the conference.
Finally, teachers and schools (and districts) can adopt the practice of deeply checking in on parents’ perceptions of their children’s school and, importantly, parents’ perceptions of their own responsibilities in supporting their children’s success. Asking questions about how parents think about their role can gather information and, perhaps more importantly, can signal to parents things the school thinks are important.
For example, “How often do you help your child engage in activities which are educational outside the home?” The Family-School Relationship Survey, open-sourced by Panorama, has a host of important family-school relationship topics with questions that have been rigorously tested and have demonstrated high reliability and validity.
Students spend most of their time outside of class. Parents and guardians are essential teachers; if we parents can work more closely with our children’s classroom teachers, it is highly likely we can radically improve student outcomes. Panorama is committed to building tools and resources, like the Parent-Teacher Conference Agenda Packet, to help teachers and parents work together to make this a reality.