Parent-Teacher, Student-Teacher, or Student-Parent-Teacher Conferences (page 3)
Narratives are only one way to share comments about student work. Even better, when the opportunity arises, is to talk with the students and parents about student achievement because then you can listen and have a dialogue. Parent conferences require that teachers use the same observational, summarizing, and goal-setting skills as do narrative assessments. In this case, however, oral communication skills and relationship skills are the vehicle for working with parents instead of writing skills. Student conferences can be a regular part of some classes, typically concerning individual assignments before students turn in the final product.
Set A Purpose
In some cases you won’t have much choice about whether or not to hold parent conferences. Many school districts require one or two parent conferences be offered each year, especially for younger students. Decide what evidence you’ll need to collect, and in what form, to show to parents at the conference. It may sound silly now, but I remember doing parent conferences with middle school students years ago prepared only with the gradebook. It never occurred to me that systematically saved pieces of evidence would give me a good conversation starter or focusing tool. Even if you are just doing individual student conferences about one assignment in your classroom, set a purpose. Don’t start talking with students until you know what you want to accomplish with the conference.
Plan The Logistics
For conferences, planning the logistics can be complicated. Schedules and appointments must be made, and appropriate space reserved. The space needs to provide privacy. You shouldn’t, for instance, conduct conferences in your classroom with one family while another waits for their turn in the same room.
Collect The Evidence
There are several different ways you can prepare the evidence for conferences. Portfolios can be shared at conferences, as can checklists, anecdotal records, narratives, or grades. You can collect individual pieces of evidence to show as illustrations of the general level of student work, and reasons students received the kind of grades they did. Students can assist in the selection of evidence. How exactly you should do this depends on the purpose of the conference.
Interpret the Evidence, Communicate the Information, and Listen to The Response
The interpretation and communication process for conferences is similar to that for narratives and portfolios, with one important difference: You will be talking directly with students or parents; therefore, it is extremely important that you actively listen to what they have to say. Involve them in interpreting the evidence from student work or from your observations of students in class.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The major advantage of conferences is the opportunity for dialogue. This, of course, requires good listening and interpersonal skills. Another strength of conferences is that they help develop home-school relationships. Face-to-face communication allows for better understanding between parents and teachers, the two most important sets of adults in the child’s life, and among parents, teachers, and the student.
Weaknesses of conferences include the time-consuming and difficult nature of scheduling and other logistics, and the related problem that you can’t hold conferences very frequently. Dysfunctional or antagonistic parents can be a problem. When confronted with these situations, respond professionally. Your job as the child’s teacher is to understand the child’s environment as best you can, not to become the family’s counselor, and certainly not to become afraid or anxious.
I once had a conference with the father of a seventh grader who refused to do anything in my Language Arts class; instead, he played with a toy truck on his desk. When I took the truck from him, instead of stopping, he would make a “Vroom-vroom” noise and pretend his hand was the truck, steering around the top of his desk. Roy’s reading and writing were very poor and not getting any better. At my conference with his father, I met a very angry, unemployed man. He yelled at me, saying that teachers made too much money and that his son didn’t have to do what I asked in class. Apparently, the father’s response to his troubles was to withdraw and become belligerent–just as his son did in class. I did not try to argue with Roy’s dad. Instead I tried, not entirely successfully, to stick to a discussion of Roy’s work and behavior. I did not fall into the trap of talking about teachers’ salaries or personalize the attack and get upset because he was yelling at me.
Relationship skills required for parent conferences include communicating genuine caring, building rapport, listening, empathizing, reflecting parents’ feelings, and clarifying (Perl, 1995). Perl’s list of relationship skills for parent conferences about students with disabilities applies as well to parent conferences about all students.
Often, schools will have a school-wide parent conference day set up during the fall, typically sometime in October after the school year has started and the teachers have had a chance to get to know their students. Another conference day may be scheduled in the spring. Make sure not to confuse these with “open house” times, which are not times to share specific information about individual students. Parent conferences should be scheduled individually, and information should be kept confidential.
Typically, student-teacher conferences are about smaller “chunks” of work, specific assignments or groups of assignments, than are conferences with parents involved. Students can receive specific feedback from teachers, and students can help teachers understand their particular needs or points of confusion and the accomplishments of which they are particularly proud. One good way to integrate assessment with instruction is to engage in student-teacher conferences during the course of independent work. A classic version of this is student-teacher conferences about students’ writing. Teachers meet with students about drafts of specific work, and together size up the effort to date and set goals for improvement.
If your school does not permit students to attend parent-teacher conferences, Stiggins (2005) recommends using student-teacher conferences as preparation for parent-teacher conferences. Go over with the student the evidence that you will present to the parents. Make sure the student understands what you will be telling his or her parents, to eliminate a sense of “they’re talking about me behind my back.”
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