Like most aspects of school systems, parent-teacher conferences have become petrified artifacts of the status quo. We assume all of it has to look the way it does because that is the way it has always been. So we dress a little bit nicer than we usually do and show up for the long line of 5-10 minute largely superficial conversations about the incredibly complex and deeply personal task of teaching and learning. When it’s over teachers feel good because they endured another night without conflict and parents feel good because they showed up and wrote down what the teachers said about their child. I always felt anxiety about these nights. Honestly, early on parents scared me a little–especially when I had finally realized all that I did not know about the craft of teaching and was afraid their questions might expose my ignorance.

As I became more confident in my teaching, I was better able to use the power of “eduspeak” to explain my choices in the classroom and project the appearance of certainty to avoid any challenges that might come my way. My insecurities masked as expertise served to silence most parents and I could make it through the night without unearthing my flawed system.

It was no wonder that nothing really changed. Not only did my voice dominate the conference, but I focused all or most of the time on past behavior rather than specific learning successes and struggles and resources to help advance those successes and address those struggles going forward. Most of comments were something like: “Your child has a low score in the homework category. He/she needs to do more homework” or “Your child’s low quiz scores are the reason the grade is low.” Not only were these comments not particularly useful, they were also focused on categories of a grade book rather than specific knowledge or skills. Parents could easily look at the grade book from home and know the same information I was telling them face-to-face. Because I talked most of the time, I also lost out on the opportunity to learn from the expert on the child–the parent. All of this wasted valuable time and did not help build a deeper understanding between the critical team members working to help the child.

Most importantly, the person most critical to the conversation, the student, was often not there and/or had no voice in the conversation. Given how I viewed and dominated the conversation, they would have had no reason to be there. They knew better than anyone how they were doing in the categories of the grade book. Even when the student came along, I still did most of the talking unless a parent stepped in to yell at their child for not doing homework or not studying for the quiz. I did this for years because that was what everyone around me was doing.

It was embarrassingly late in my teaching that I finally faced my fears and insecurities as a teacher and started to focus all my efforts on holding myself accountable to building efficacious students. Guided by the research on student efficacy, I worked to be more transparent in my expectations and more explicit in my efforts to support students in their learning. For me, that journey led to my own version of standards-based grading and collaborating with students and parents to help build a child’s belief in their own ability to learn and grow. One of the biggest places where that work saw the most reward was at the student/parent/teacher conferences.

Because I was clear in the learning outcomes (along with the why and how of them) and I was doggedly focused on helping my students’ understand them and achieve them, conferences offered opportunities for students to lead the conversation and explain their growth in their learning and identify what they needed to do to further improve. I now spent most of the conferences either nodding in agreement and celebrating the hard work that went into the learning being described or reminding the students to include the stories of their successes because they were so focused on where they still needed to improve. Even when students could not make the conference, they completed a reflection that parents read and then we reviewed together to ensure that the child’s voice and experience were leading the conversation. Because the conversation was focused on the specific skills or content, I also was able to highlight resources and specific supports that parents could use or do to help their child improve. This allowed every conversation to end positively with a focus on actions the child could take in the future rather than talking in the “could haves” and “should haves” of past performance.

As we near student/parent/teacher conference time, examine your grade book and ask yourself:

  1. If I were a parent, would I be able to tell from this report what specifically my child knows and can do (instructional outcomes) and what specifically my child needs to improve?
  2. Would a student in my class be able to use the grade book report to explain what knowledge and skills they have gained proficiency in and what knowledge and skills are still being developed?
  3. Would I be able to share specific resources to help a parent support their child’s efforts to improve in their learning of a concept or skill?

If your answers to these questions are yes, I would love to hear what you are doing so that I can learn more ways to help team up with parents to build student efficacy in learning. If your answers to these questions are no, what can you do to help make your grade book and grades more transparent and focused for students and parents? If I can be of any use on that journey, let me know.

Additional Resources on parent-teacher conferences:

Conference Fail (Teaching Tolerance)

Rethinking Parent-Teacher Conferences (Teaching Tolerance)

Five Resources for Parent-Teacher Conferences (Edutopia)

Student-led Conferences (Edutopia)

Three Shifts to Focus Parent-Teacher Conferences on Creating a Partnership (Mindshift)