At its worst, a parent-teacher conference amounts to an awkward powwow between two strangers, a ritual event to be endured. Done right, though, it marks a meeting between two of the most important adults in a child’s life, concerning the most important subject.
“I value the relationship of student, teacher and parent,” said Daryl Sigg, a third-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary. “Parents need to feel that their students’ needs are validated, that by working together, we work toward the best interests of the student….”
Recent technology has gone some way toward bridging the distance between teacher and parent.
“I talk to parents through e-mail, on the phone, texting, and on the student’s planner every week,” said Karen Price, fifth-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary. “However, the conferences are more personal….”
Sigg agrees: “I would much rather speak with a parent in person about student issues than through a phone conversation or social media.” Not to mention the fact that “there are still families without internet services at home to check their students’ grades on Powerschool, so a conference may be the first time a parent becomes aware of missing assignments, late work, or poor work….”
According to Jefferson Principal Brad Crusinbery, the school has traditionally had an attendance rating of over 95 percent, a glittering statistic due in no small part to teacher effort: “At Jefferson we schedule all the conferences…. Teachers try to contact those parents that are not able to make it to the conferences and reschedule or do a phone conference.”
Price, whose attendance rating stands at 100 percent, personifies the school’s aims: “If a parent cannot come during the scheduled time, I reschedule it. Sometimes it takes a while to get together, but eventually the conference happens.”
Parental attendance at these meetings tends to wane as the student moves up in grade, but USD 257 records high numbers at all levels.
According to Principal Jack Stanley, in recent years the middle school has had “an average of mid-60 percent to low 70 percent” of its students represented by their parents.
“I know that not all of our parents/guardians are able to attend, but I would like to see it in the 90th percentile,” said Anthony Herrick, an English teacher at the middle school.
Education theorists lay heavy emphasis on the quality of preparation each side, parents and teachers, brings to the meeting.
A few years ago, the Harvard Family Research Project issued a paper — “Parent-Teacher Conference Tip Sheets: for Principals, Teachers, and Parents” — intended as a “practical tool” by which these groups could acquire “ideas and strategies that honor their shared responsibility.”
The internet is crawling with similar tip sheets, for parents and teachers both; a fact which suggests that, for some, the anxiety regarding how to approach meetings of this sort persists.
“I think too many times conferences are seen in a negative light,” said Sigg, “particularly if a student has had to make that call home regarding negative issues. However, if open lines of communication are established at the start of a new school year, most parents attend.”
Beth Wille, another English instructor at the middle school, is sensitive to the unease some parents might feel in this staged environment. “One thing I’ve heard parents say in the past is that it would be nice to have a little more privacy. Sometimes they have personal information they need to share with us. Our conferences are set up with everyone in the gym…. Sometimes, though, when we are really busy, people can end up pretty close together.”
Herrick has heard it, too. “If I have a parent/guardian with a specific concern that does not feel comfortable in that atmosphere discussing their student, after notifying the principal/assistant principal, we will retreat to my classroom to hold that meeting.”
A more targeted strategy, like the one pursued by Crusinbery, has the advantage of netting parents who otherwise might not attend. A feature of these assemblies, generally, is that they attract the same cast of parents each time round — very often, though, not the parents of the students who could benefit the most from a family-school connection.
“We can usually predict from previous siblings who is likely to come to conferences,” said Wille, another teacher who maintains year-round contact with parents by phone and e-mail but who welcomes the face-to-face sessions offered at conference-time.
It’s not unusual for parents who attend the meetings to learn something new about their son or daughter. A teacher may reveal that first-grader Billy is a polite, shy and helpful boy at school, where you know him to be a lovable but unkept beast at home.
Mostly, though, parent-teacher conferences are an opportunity, as Daryl Sigg says, for teachers “to get to ‘brag’ on the awesome things students demonstrate. There’s good in every student and teachers have the opportunity to point this out in person, face to face.”
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