In 1992 I was an exchange teacher to Australia, teaching fourth grade in suburban Sydney at Yates Avenue School, which was apparently named after someone named Yates. The year was well underway when it was time for parent conferences. I asked someone about the logistics.
“Will there be conference time request forms to send home? How will we coordinate with families that have siblings in different classrooms? How many half-days are we talking about? Is there an evening option?”
“Relax, mate. It’s one half-day and the parents just line up outside the classroom. Or not; it’s up to them.”
And sure enough, that’s how it went down. Those parents who wanted a conference showed up, lined up and had a conference. Obviously there was no point in preparing for each conference, since I wasn’t at all sure who would be there or when. And the conferences lasted anywhere from two minutes to half an hour, mostly depending on how many people were waiting for me. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very effective arrangement.
Fortunately things are different in my school. Parent conferences, at least at the elementary level are a pretty big deal. We have 30-minute blocks carved out for each conference, with plenty of time for teachers to collect evidence, make plans and set goals. I do all of these things, but I also have three rules of thumb that I follow religiously. Rules of Tom, if you will.
First of all, I make it clear to each parent that I know their child and I like their child. I tell a funny anecdote involving the kid or ask about one of their outside interests. Sometimes I’ll describe how they act in the classroom and how much I enjoy their company and their energy. The point is, these parents have invested everything they have in their children and they want desperately to know that they’re being cared for by someone who values them. That’s important.
Furthermore, I try to spend most of the time listening. I’ll present my evidence and explain my goals for the student, but more than anything, I want the parent to tell me about their child. I’ll sit quietly, taking notes, asking questions, trying to find out what makes the kid tick. I figure the more I know about my students, the better I can teach them, and the best way to know my students is to listen to the people who’ve known them the longest.
Finally – and this can be difficult – I do not give unsolicited advice. I’ve believe that unsolicited advice always sounds like criticism; especially when it comes to parenting. There may be some obvious flaws to a parent’s technique, but pointing that out is simply not my job. Moreover, it usually makes things worse, since the parent will most likely react by getting defensive and resentful toward me and what I’m trying to do with the student. With envelope the most dysfunctional families, I’ll gently explain what I’m trying to accomplish, ask questions and listen respectfully.
I actually enjoy parent conferences. They can be exhausting, but for me it’s a time to learn more about my students and form partnerships with their families.
And I often wonder if the folks back at Yates Avenue have stepped up their game in the last twenty-five years.