Parent -Teacher Conferences
This article provides an overview of the characteristics of traditional parent-teacher conferences. Practical application recommendations are provided with an emphasis on specific strategies that can be employed to foster successful, meaningful conferences with parents. Moreover, the article explores parent-teacher conferences from a cultural perspective and provides suggestions for ways to encourage culturally sensitive interactions. Discussion also focuses on two alternative parent-teacher conference models gaining popularity in schools today: The CORE-Family School Conference Model and Student-led conferences.
Keywords CORE: Family School Conference Model; Culturally Responsive Interactions; Open House; Parental Involvement; Parent-Teacher Conferences; Portfolio; Student-Led Conferences
Parent-teacher conferences provide a set-aside time for teachers and parents to discuss student progress with regards to academics, social interactions and emotional well-being. Teachers and parents use the conference as a vehicle to help clarify issues, develop strategies to address specific issues and concerns and determine goals for future student progress (Barron, 1991). Traditionally, parent-teacher conferences occur several times throughout the year and last for a brief period of time (usually 15-20 minutes) to ensure equitable distribution of a teacher's attention to all of his/her students in a given class. Traditional parent-teacher conferences are held without the student present and are generally facilitated and directed by the teacher.
Hanhan (1998) indicates that parent-teacher conferences are the single most frequently used method of parent communication in schools today. They are designed specifically to encourage parents to actively participate in their child's education and to bridge the gap between the home and school. Other forms of parent involvement include functions throughout the year such as Open Houses and Back to School Nights. However, the parent-teacher conference is the only traditional forum set aside throughout the school year for parents and teachers to meet face-to-face to discuss student progress and actively listen to each other's concerns.
General Recommendations for Successful Parent-Teacher Conferences
Simmons (2002) encourages teachers to always assume good-will on behalf of parents. Although a parent's perspective regarding student progress may differ significantly from the teacher's viewpoint, and thus effective communication may prove difficult, the teacher must remember that the parent is often the one individual who knows his/her child best and can shed the most light on why specific problems or issues may exist. Although a parent may come across as unwilling to accept negative information or may be reluctant to hear that a problem exists, the teacher must acknowledge that the parent is competent and almost always acting in a child's best interest. However, it may be true from time to time that a parent does not have a child's best interest in mind. In these situations, the teacher must be skilled enough and prepared to communicate effectively to build a strong relationship between home and school. The teacher's goal is never to back-down on his/her perspective regarding a student's performance, but rather to be willing to collaborate and share responsibility for the child's academic, social and emotional progress with parents.
Simmons therefore highly recommends that teachers and parents assume shared responsibility for student progress. Everyone must actively participate in the conference to outline a plan for success and to encourage a student to achieve specific goals. Teachers can achieve this type of teamwork by building strong foundations of trust, honesty and respect. When parents feel that a teacher is concerned about their child's well-being and progress in school, they are more likely to actively participate in the goal setting and put forth as much effort as necessary to achieve success for their child (Simmons, 2002).
Evans (2004) highlights the critical role active listening plays in successful parent-teacher interactions. He asserts that listening to parents is the key to gaining information and building/sustaining a cooperative relationship with parents. When actively listening, a teacher invites the parent to share his/her thoughts, ideas, concerns and questions while retelling statements in his/her own words to convey understanding (Evans, 2004). Often, in traditional parent-teacher conference models, teachers present information and provide little time for parents to discuss their own thoughts and concerns. By reversing this traditional practice and placing more emphasis on actively listening to parents, teachers may find that they are better able to solve issues and better prepared to deliver negative messages, should it be necessary.
Evans further recommends that when teachers provide information in a conference setting, they need to be as direct and simple as possible. He indicates that parents are likely to remember only three major points from a conference and therefore suggests that teachers focus their delivery on explicitly outlining and providing examples for three specific areas of success or in need of improvement (Evans, 2004). Evans emphasizes the use of data and examples as a way to guide conversation and provide structure. By showing student work and providing specific examples for parents to view, teachers are better able to support the claims they make regarding student progress.
Avoiding Generalizations / Abstractions
Evans indicates that teachers must work hard to not get lost in generalizations or abstractions. Often, when teachers have negative information to share, they fear negative parent reactions and therefore diminish the seriousness of the issue in order to avoid possible conflict. Evans asserts that in these types of situations teachers resort to generalizations to help ease the impact of negative information and thus fail to communicate their concerns effectively. Open, honest, and straightforward communication may be difficult at times, but is necessary to create ideal conditions for improving student learning outcomes.
Managing Time Effectively
Evans further discusses the critical importance of managing time effectively in parent-teacher conference situations. Teachers need to manage the flow of the conversation and provide frequent reminders of the time allotted and the time remaining to discuss student progress, issues, concerns and questions. To ensure that all parents are provided with equal opportunities to share and discuss student progress, teachers must work to guide the conversation and ensure equity.
Create Welcoming Atmosphere
Stevens & Tollafield (2003) emphasize actions teachers can take to create a welcoming atmosphere conducive to positive collaboration and team work in the parent-teacher conference setting. They encourage teachers to think critically about how they invite parents to conferences and how they ensure parents actually attend. They further discuss how teachers need to be aware of how they set a positive tone for productive conferences. Jordan et al. (1998) highlight the fact that simple considerations such as how classroom furniture is assembled can inhibit or enhance communication and therefore should be carefully considered.
Challenging Traditional Assumptions
As teachers work with students from increasingly diverse backgrounds, traditional assumptions regarding cultural norms and practices may be challenged in the parent-teacher conference setting. Quiroz (1999) indicates that each cultural model includes assumptions the group takes for granted and does not recognize as cultural in origin. Certain phrases used to communicate academic progress in one culture may be misunderstood or misinterpreted by a family from a different cultural background. Moreover, certain expectations for academic and social growth may differ greatly from one perspective to the next. Quiroz (1999) further asserts that different cultural models define criteria for evaluating child development. A teacher's perception of social interactions from his/her own cultural perspective may differ greatly from what a parent may feel is appropriate, developmentally, from his/her cultural perspective. Often, the different cultural constructs conflict when parents meet with teachers to discuss student academic performance and social/emotional well-being.
Understanding Beliefs, Values
Jordan et al. (1998) assert that teachers must work to understand beliefs, values, and expectations that guide parent expectations for student performance. For example, although a teacher may expect a student to raise his/her hand to share ideas with more frequency; this type of interaction may be discouraged in the home setting. Additionally, although a teacher may feel that it is appropriate for a student to become more social and interact with peers more regularly, such emphasis and critical importance may not be placed on this expectation in the home setting. The value each family places on education, the varying roles students assume in different households and the level of parental involvement differ from family to family (Ramey & Ramey, 1994). Teachers need to increase awareness of these cultural norms and expectations and ensure sensitivity to possible differences.
Jordan et al. (1998) indicates that teachers need to enhance communication with different families by increasing levels of culturally responsive interactions. As Burstein & Cabello (1989) illuminate, the majority of cultural miscommunication in the parent-teacher conference setting results directly from the teacher's lack of knowledge and experience...
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