How to prepare for parent-teacher conferences

Parent-teacher conferences can leave you either feeling like a rock star or down in the dumps — some discussions go swimmingly, but others are more than challenging. Think about it: You’re dealing with someone who is wholly invested in their child, so there can certainly be some pushback if a parent disagrees with something you’re doing. 

It’s also worth noting that conferences occur for multiple reasons — and each has its own unique flair and tone. They may be held because of an incident. Or perhaps it’s just for a routine check-in, grade, or fill in the blank. Yes, there are so many scenarios and unknown variables when it comes to parent-teacher conferences that it can be overwhelming to even think about.

Fortunately, we have some tips that will prepare you for these meetings so you can shine like the awesome teacher that you are.

7 tips for parent-teacher conferences

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Photo credit: Monserrat Solis

1. Be prepared

You probably don’t wing lessons, right? A conference is part of the job that you might not want to wing either. For example, if you’re calling a meeting because of a low mark, it’s constructive to have the grade printed out with evidence supporting that decision. (Perhaps you could show some anonymous student work that’s “A” quality for comparison). And, if you have a rubric that clearly states why the student failed that paper, be sure to show it. Those detailed rubrics can be lifesavers if you find yourself defending your grading decisions.

You may also have records of when that student missed things, like their homework or attendance. If you have that documentation in front of you, that makes you more credible to a questioning parent.

After the conference, parents can take the prepared handouts with them. You can also supply them with conference notes and additional accommodations and goals. In my experience, parents appreciate written documents that they can take home and reference.

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Photo credit: Mark Glancy

2. Role-play scenarios

Speaking of being prepared, one of the most useful preparation activities that I learned in my teaching graduate program at the University of Vermont was role-playing.

The process was simple: One person played the role of the parent, and another served as the teacher faced with a  scenario that was not so black and white. For example, one of them involved a parent who was angry over their kid’s grades. Another one was with a parent who accused the teacher of deception. Yet another hypothetical situation was about a parent who didn’t agree with a consequence — double yikes!

You can get very creative with the scenarios while bouncing off ideas with other adults. This safe space prepares you for a parent-teacher conference before the real thing; that way, you’re not going in completely unprepared. You’ll have experiences to draw from, and you’ll be more comfortable when that irate parent does come in questioning you about their kid’s C-.

It’s simple, really: You grab a co-worker, spouse, or friend for a risk-free activity that will get you thinking about all the possibilities you could encounter during a parent-teacher conference. And then you ace the real thing.

students graduating
Photo credit: Caleb Woods

3. Involve the student

When I was in school, parent-teacher conferences were just that — meetings between the parents and the teachers. But evidence suggests that it can be incredibly powerful to include kids in the process as well.

Education strategist Monica Martinez examines these benefits in her co-authored book of case studies titled Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the 21st Century. In it, Martinez argues that student-led conferences motivate students and engage them in the learning process. Because of this benefit, many more schools are making it mandatory to integrate students in the process.

Personally, I’ve made every effort to include students in parent-teacher conferences because it gives them ownership and a voice. It was also a school policy, which I always admired.

When we did our check-in conferences, I would start the discussion by asking the students how they thought they were doing. It was a simple question, and the majority of the time, the students would be honest and mention things that I was actually going to say myself.

Keep in mind that parent-teacher conferences should be candid conversations, not interrogations. More often than not, I found that the student was harder on themselves than I would have been.

Additionally, including a student in the dialogue is beneficial when you need to address a behavioral problem. That way, it’s not just the student’s words through the voice of the parent. Students have to tell the adults what is going on and own up to their actions. This can make them uncomfortable, but it’s good for everyone — it forces them to acknowledge misbehavior in a safe environment. This again promotes an honest and respectful conversation.

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Photo credit: Magda Ehlers

4. Listen — like, really listen

I’m one of those people who has a tough time when somebody talks to me in a degrading and disagreeing tone. Don’t you? Luckily, when most parents come in for a conference — especially if they’ve gone out of their way to schedule it — most of them just want to be heard.

Even if I did not agree with a couple of things they said, I would at least throw in some “mhm”s and nod and listen. Unless I felt threatened or super uncomfortable, I would let them get their words out because that’s often exactly what they needed. In many cases, interrupting them wasn’t going to do anything productive — it would have just made tensions rise.

Note that when listening to a parent, you don’t necessarily have to agree with everything they say. But by respecting their opportunity to voice their concerns, you’re tearing down barriers and demonstrating that you’re open to hearing them out.

If they’re going on a tirade, pause the rant and repeat back what they’ve said so far without twisting their words. This respectfully demonstrates that you’ve heard exactly what they were saying but that you’d also like to keep the conversation on track. You may not agree with them, sure, but at least you understood them.

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Photo credit: Ilyass SEDDOUG

5. Know your language

This goes back to being a listener and opening the floor for respectful dialogue. When you have a parent saying things that you disagree with, it can be tough to resist assuming a defensive tone, but do try to be mindful of your language. I’m saying this as a person who actually tends to get very defensive!

That’s a very human reaction. During parent-teacher conferences in particular, since we teachers are so invested in what we do, it can be tricky when we’re verbally attacked about the way we’re managing our classroom.

So get to know your language. Some diplomatic phrases have stuck with me. One of them is simply, “Thank you for your feedback.” You also can respond with, “You may be right.” The keywords here being “may” and “be” because they leave room for suggesting that the parent may be wrong. Another one is, “So-and-so is really lucky that their parents are so invested in their learning.” Even an irate parent probably won’t argue with that. 

But of course, the perceived meaning depends heavily on how you speak — make sure there’s no condescension or sarcasm in your tone. Effective use of diplomatic language can diffuse a situation and show parents that you want what’s best for their child, too.

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Photo credit: Eric Rothermel

6. Don’t be afraid to reschedule

I was very fortunate to have mostly happy parents, but there were a couple that were more difficult. There were only a handful of these parents within my entire 12+ years of teaching, but I did have to shut down a few of these conferences. This happened after I listened to the parent to speak, but they didn’t let me get a word in, or they invaded my space, or struggled to control their volume level. It happens.

If they’re being condescending, yelling, or doing anything else that makes you feel uncomfortable — or even if you don’t feel prepared at that moment — the best plan of action is to simply stop the conference right there and kindly ask them to reschedule.

And if they continue, stop and kindly repeat your request for them to reschedule. Then, remove yourself from the situation.

When tensions are too high, that’s not the time to have a conference. Both parties need to take some time to reflect and prepare for a respectful conversation which you owe each other … later.

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Photo credit: Donald Tong

7. Have conferences for when students are doing well 

Many of your conferences are probably mandatory check-ins or for behavioral concerns. Because of this, we sometimes don’t call in the kids who are doing well.

Having a feel-good conference can make a significant impact on a student who’s doing everything they should be doing — trying their best and earning high marks — but who may not be receiving the feedback or encouragement that they need for growth.

To call a conference because a student performs well means a lot to the student and the parents. I tried my best to schedule one such “happy” conference per quarter — so a total of four positive check-ins a year.

I wish I could have done more, but I was unfortunately quite busy. Still, those special conferences put a smile on my face, too, and I never had to worry about calling a timeout during that kind of stress-free get-together.

Rock out your next conference

Parent-teacher (and maybe student) conferences are just another part of a highly versatile and demanding job. But you can learn to rock them out with preparation, experience, and confidence. You may look forward to conferences, or you may dwell on them, but the reality is that they are not going away — so you may as well be prepared!

These conferences initiate communication between parents, students, and teachers and provide feedback that kids need. Use some of the tactics above, and many of those meetups will fall right into place.

Photo credit: Sebastian Herrmann/unsplash.com

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