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Mastering the Parent-Teacher Meeting: Eight Powerful Tips

A parent teacher conference

The unknown is scary, and of all the moments of anticipation and anxiety that occur in an educator's life, there's one that reigns supreme: the parent-teacher meeting. Will my students' parents put the blame on me for poor grades? Will they question my instructional methods? Will anyone even show up?

In the 22 years I've been teaching, I've seen just about everything. I've had a parent ask me why I teach Macbeth when everyone knows Shakespeare is boring and antiquated. I've had to explain to a parent that her child was on her phone way too much in class while the parent obsessively texted on her own phone during our entire conversation. I've had parents tell me I shouldn't care about plagiarism—I should just be happy their child found the information at all.

Despite these occasional moments of friction, teachers should do their utmost to see parents as essential partners in their students' education. After all, have you ever met any parents who didn't want their child to succeed? Parents can be valuable allies in helping students achieve their best, and meetings are a great way to forge those bonds. Here are eight tips to help you conduct masterful, action-oriented parent-teacher meetings.

Be Proactive

Don't forget to factor in some students' ninja-like ability to ensure their parents don't know conference times and dates; the same student who may have trouble on his math exams may be secretly adept at hacking into his dad's smartphone and deleting a voicemail. Repeated communication is occasionally necessary.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to even get parents into the building: work runs late, coordinating childcare is a headache, and language barriers may hinder communication. You can overcome some of these obstacles by finding culturally appropriate ways to welcome families and encourage them to become active participants in your classroom. Send invitations in a parent's native language, or have translators on hand. At my school, designated students handle basic translation of nonconfidential conversations, while school translators handle more delicate issues. If childcare is a problem, let parents know they can bring young ones to the meeting.

Be Welcoming

Set the right tone for your parent-teacher meeting by shaking hands, stating your name and the subject you teach, and mentioning how happy you are to be teaching their child. Smile warmly, and offer them a seat. If you're looking for an easy way to break the ice, share a positive anecdote about their child. For example, "Did Jeremiah tell you he was the first one to solve the difficult math problem yesterday?"

Explain Objectives and Expectations

I like to give parents an overview of the goals for my classes and a copy of our reading list. I discuss the expectations I have for my students and explain any language that a parent might not be familiar with: rubric, scaffolding, readiness, testing acronyms, etc. In addition, I provide parents with a copy of my classroom policies to review and sign, which helps avoid any confusion in the future.

Be Prepared

Parents want to see that the teacher knows their child and has a plan for their success. Review your students' grades and portfolios before the conferences. Jot down notes about each student, anticipate questions or parental concerns, and reread any prior parent communication so you don't miss a beat.

Create an Action Plan

Parents don't want a laundry list of concerns dumped in their laps—they want to know how you're going to fix the problem. Create an action plan that clearly lays out the specific steps that the teacher, the parent, and the student will need to take in order for the student to be successful. For instance, if Gabriela doesn't complete essays because she has a difficult time writing introductions, her written action plan should include an agreement that she'll notify you when she needs help, that you'll meet with her to provide assistance, and that her parents will make sure that she spends time at home crafting her essay.

 

Use the Good-Bad-Good Sandwich

When it comes to discussing tough topics with a parent, this trick is the silver bullet. Start by highlighting something positive—"Gerald's writing shows an insight I don't often see in students his age"—then move on to the issue: "The problem is that Gerald is often off-task, and I've caught him on his phone several times. When he's not paying attention, he misses valuable class content." Discuss your action plan for correcting the behavior, and finish up with another positive statement: "With Gerald's strong writing ability and his improved attention in class, I know he'll have a successful year." The good-bad-good sandwich is practically foolproof.

Don't Tolerate Abuse

I've had parents threaten to call the superintendent, the mayor, the pope (OK, maybe not the pope, but you get the idea). If a parent becomes abusive, simply end the meeting; explain how they can take up the matter with the principal. There's no reason you have to let a parent bully or intimidate you.

Keep Lines of Communication Open

Explain to parents how they can get in touch with you after the meeting, and ask the best way to reach them. Encourage them to ask questions, provide updates, and express concerns as they see fit.

Bumps in the road happen, but 98 percent of my parent-teacher meetings over the years have been meaningful and effective. Some of my students' parents have even become strong advocates for my classroom. And many have truly gone the extra mile for teachers.

For instance, for three years while her child was in my class, one parent made sure to bring me a home-cooked Italian dinner before every single parent-teacher conference. By graduation, I felt like I needed to give that parent my Social Security number so she could put me down as a dependent on her income tax—boy, I sure miss all that pasta e fagioli and lasagna.

Parents and teachers are on the same team when it comes to helping students achieve. Following these steps can help you create partnerships with parents and ensure that all your students are equipped to succeed.