I talked with other teachers, I talked with my grade level, I researched the best ways to conduct a conference, but in the end it was just me on one side of the table and the parents on the other. My first conferences were a blur. I had packets of test scores and work samples, I tried to be positive, I tried to answer questions. I tried, I tried, I tried. In the end, I cried. It was difficult to be put in that situation. Lost in the dark and being expected to be the light for so many students and their families. I couldn’t answer questions about our testing program because I hadn’t been trained, I didn’t know some of the policies about the school, while many of the parents were part of the school board and knew more than I did. But, when I was done crying, I brushed it off and heavily reflected.
For the next round of conferences I garnered from the Internet a schedule of what to talk about and how long, areas to address and areas to avoid. I had everything written out and prepared. I had a timer and some chocolates. I tossed my hair over my shoulders, straightened my back and began. I was very straightforward. Here is this, here is that, this means this, this means that, thank you very much, email if you need to. There were very few questions and no emails from parents. I patted myself on the back for a job well done. No crying, no need for reflecting. Instead I had a well earned drink and toasted to a job well done.
A few weeks later a funny thing happened. I was put on the other side of the table when I went to my son’s preschool conference. His preschool is so hard to get into that he was actually put on the list when he was born. There are many great things about the program there. As a novice teacher, I was already intimidated by the preschool teacher, and at the same time eager to learn whatever I could from her.
We had to wait at the door until it was our turn. She brought my husband and myself in and we took the long drop from standing to sitting on the tiny preschool chairs.
She welcomed us and had us sign in.
She was very straightforward. Here is this, here is that, this means this, this means that, thank you very much, email if you need to.
Without understanding why, when we left I felt raw. My heart was broken.
Sitting on THAT side of the table, I realized that what I needed most from my son’s teacher was to know that he was loved. That he was valued. That no matter what obstacles he may face, he had a team behind him. At the end of the conference, I cared less about his scores and his work samples. What I wanted was to feel the positive relationship he had with his teacher.
So I cried and I reflected.
I realized that the reason the parent teacher conference is always dreaded is because we don’t know each other, the parent and the teacher. We don’t know, as the parent how our child is valued or how their education is valued. By introducing your teacher self, truly, you create a bond with the parent that you always make with each child. We teach our students, we take each of them into our hearts, and their parents allow that, they hope and pray for it. But, they need us, teachers, to show them how much we care for each child.
What it really comes down to is communication. I try to begin the year by welcoming parents and students personally. I email parents about successes more often than concerns. I keep track in my grading book to make sure that I have emailed everyone at some point. It can be difficult to do this with my now 100 sets of parents as a middle school teacher, but that 10 minutes a day keeps the angry parent away. By doing these small things, by the time conferences come around, parents aren’t surprised by anything because we have been in constant communication.
So, when conferences began that next year, I welcomed parents into my room. I tried to make sure we were seated in a circle instead of across from each other, and I would always start out with how much I enjoyed each child. Even with my challenges, because everyone had something that they needed to be praised and bragged about. I would tell parents how excited I was to be able to have this time to celebrate their child and all of their accomplishments. There were times that we needed to discuss some things that were harder, like behavior contracts or ways to increase their participation in class, but I found it was easier to do now because I came into each conference with the intent of love and celebration. I was able to develop a relationship with families, prior to the conference, where the dreaded parent teacher conference turned into just another conversation about our team because communication with parents had became commonplace.
That first year of conferences, as the teacher and the parent, were rough. They were also not something I could have been taught; I had to experience the pain for myself. Sometimes it takes some crying, offering some chocolate, maybe a glass of wine or two. But what teaching and parenting always comes down to, is our relationships with each other. This can only be done through communication. Communicating can be scary, it feels raw and vulnerable, but when it’s done through honest caring and commitment over time, it creates trust. We want parents to trust us because parents entrust us with their most valuable part of themselves, their children.
Autumn Ernest teaches 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English at Dixon Montessori Charter School in Dixon, California. She has been teaching there for 5 years and is very lucky to be able to grow with her students. She is an Area 3 Writing Project Teacher Consultant and has taken courses with the Reading and Writing Project at The Teacher's College. She also trains local middle school teachers in the art of writing and cross-curricular collaboration.