Parent Teacher Conferences

I just finished another round of parent teacher conferences. For two days and approximately 13 hours, I met with the parents of nearly one hundred students. They came in one after another every seven minutes. After the fortieth or fiftieth conference, I had fallen into a routine. I was working with a manageable and effective script:

Rather than tell you a bunch of information you may not read or want to hear, I would love if you would tell me a little about your child in these three fields:

  • Have you heard anything from him/her that would be cause for celebration? How are they feeling overall about our class and his/her progress?
  • Are there any concerns or questions you have about his/her attainment or skills?
  • Is there anything about the curriculum which you might need more clarity?

While our model was far from ideal, it worked. Most parents found an area on which they wanted to focus, and I tailored my comments based on what they wanted to hear. Some parents were excited by the work we are doing at The Table. Some were proud of their kids for publicly sharing their voices on their blogs. Some parents were concerned that we weren’t reading enough classics. Some were concerned that we weren’t reading enough. Full stop. Some where concerned with our approach to teaching English. Overall, I felt very positive about our conversations. I felt that most parents were happy with our progress as a class, most parents were happy with their child’s progress and grades. Most parents were satisfied.

Later that night, on Twitter, I bemoaned the stress of grades and skills and attainment when it comes to schooling and wished that I had had different conversations. I was having the wrong conversations. What made it worse was that I realized that I had framed the conversations myself, because that is what I felt parents wanted.

After the conferences, we sat as a department for a quick debrief, and I excitedly shared my script, mentioned the positive feedback, while we absorbed the negative feedback.  I felt quite pleased with myself.  I had had great conferences, even though they may not have been the ones I wanted.

Then Ian, our Fearless Leader, mentioned a conversation he had with a mother who had not been concerned about grades at all, or skills or classics, but wanted to ask Ian about his values. She was a former UWC graduate, and for her the most important thing was whether or not her child’s teacher had values that matched the UWC ethos. She wanted to know what kind of person was sitting in front of her child and what types of qualities and understanding he valued.

I got to thinking–So many parents asked me what their child can do to improve. No matter how they were doing, no matter the grade, no matter the comments– nearly everyone asked me how their child could improve. Where does this need to achieve and compete and become perfect come from. Is improvement the same as growth, do either correlate with learning? Does improvement in a skill lead to understanding? Does improvement in skills lead to values? Do attainment and grades, skills and improvement always indicate learning in terms of values. What is the purpose of school? Skills or values? Both? How do we balance the two? When do we talk about how or when students are being concerned or committed, principled, resilient, self-aware? Communicators? Collaborators? Thinkers, Problem Solvers, Creative or Self-Mangers? Do their attainment grades in single subjects reflect their learning in terms of Service, Outdoor Ed, Activities, Personal and Social Education? What I am trying to say is that we all tend to focus on the Academic?

I framed my entire conversation around the things I value least in hopes that I would satisfy what parents wanted, but is that really what they wanted? I hope parents who are reading this will contribute in the comments below, so we can extend the conversation. I hope we can find better ways to talk about what is happening at school in regards to their kids. The conversations can be, should be much deeper, than a seven minute discourse on why he/she received a number or whether or not they can use a comma.

I am purposely being a tad flippant, of course I understand that each conference is based on what happens in that single subject. I also realize that teachers are ultimately responsible for conveying a set of understandings and developing a skill set. We are accountable for a set of standards and benchmarks and our assessments should reflect improvement in these skills. I also know that parents want to be informed and included on talks about choices we make about curriculum, but like Jeff Plaman said, can’t these conversations happen as a group, in public, on blogs like this one?

My qualm is the amount of focus, time and energy we spend solely on attainment and academic grades. Skills and grades are a reality. They are based on rubrics, but no matter how we try to justify how they come to be, they can often be arbitrary and subjective.  A grade tends to  a very ineffective method to share student learning.

So what is the answer? What are the conversations we could be having? How do you do parent conferences at your school? (Before you say Student Led conference, yes that is option, but I know of few schools who have perfected that model either. They still tend to be parents looking over the shoulders, looking for the teacher to talk about that pesky math grade. We will have SLC at the end of the year, but most schools still feel a need to have parent conferences in addition to SLC) As a parent, what are your thoughts? What would you like to see? How do you feel after a talk with teachers? What is important to you?

I hope this post generates some fruitful conversations and possible ideas for future conferences.


9 thoughts on “Parent Teacher Conferences

  1. avatarA Grade 7 parent

    Hi Jabiz,

    I’m one of the parents you met with on Wednesday night. I’m not a parent who is obsessed with grades. I chose the school for its ethos as well as its academic standards. It is in fact easy to find schools with high academic standards if you are willing to pay, it’s harder to find a school that embodies the ethos our school has. However, having said that, I don’t want my child underachieving and I know his strengths and weaknesses already and you correctly pointed these out, which tells me you know my son. That’s really all I needed to know – that he’s not a statistic and you are aware of where he needs to improve. Having said that, my son doesn’t really have any major issues so I may feel differently if he did. Six minutes is probably enough time to discover if you need to make another appointment to discuss in more detail, but maybe not if there are sensitive issues to be broached. To sum up, I want to come away feeling you as a teacher know my child (without spending half the conference looking at a grading sheet), can offer some advice if necessary and if there are problems, sound as though you care and want to help, as opposed to being irritated. However we mustn’t forget that the kids look to their grades on the report too, not just parents.

  2. avatarGrade 8 parent

    I want to begin by answering your questions , I have heard nothing but praise of his English class and after a very long time my son feels he is being appreciated for his thoughts and expression – a cause for celebration indeed. He loves the English class and enjoys being taught by you. Iam impressed with the depth of his thinking. At least I know the many hours that he spends on the computer playing games and chatting with friends has not eroded the intensity of his thoughts and feelings. It would be nice if we had a little more information about what is being done in class, just so that we feel more included and it gives us a topic of conversation with the child.

    I agree with you that a grade is a very ineffective means to share student learning, as sometimes a good grade can only lead to a bad attitude….is that what we are looking for in an education. Certainly not. How do you educate to balance the learning? equal portions of intellect and humility, compassion and sensitivity.

  3. avatarMarialine

    Hi Jabiz,

    At UWCSEA, it almost seems like a contradiction in terms to try and match grades to what the school stands for, but inevitably the parent teacher conferences often revolve around just that. As a parent, I would be far happier to discuss the happiness and internal growth indicators of my child than often subjective grades, but grades still drive the success in the external world and whether the kids will get into a good university. Maybe the lesson for all of us should be to focus less on the factors that drive external success and to focus rather on a higher dimension and belief in oneself. Grades in itself are limiting on many levels and become totally irrelevant when you attend Epic Arts performances. How could the College lead the rest of the world by starting to measure success on the basis of projected happiness and values ? How do we get out of this straitjacket, called grades?

  4. avatarNeetu, a grade 8 parent.

    Hi Jabiz,
    Personally, I would find it more meaningful, if the parents were invited to the classroom at the start of the year and the tutors were to take turns to introduce themselves. I am sure, when you entered every class for the first time this year, you would have started out by saying something about yourself to your students. Unfortunately, we as parents do not get that opportunity. An evening where teachers can introduce themselves by including not only their personal and educational background, it should extend to include how the teacher / mentor conducts a class. What are her values? His passions and interests? Her life experiences? What are the rules in her class? What are his expectations? From students? From parents? Most importantly, why is she a tutor at our school? This introduction will give us parents a glimpse into who the tutor is, which space he is from, and where is he going to take the students. Considering the fact that most tutors in our school are also designated “Mentors” to the students, it becomes even more relevant to begin any conversation by first knowing who the parent is talking to. When any parent-teacher conference is held after the student-reports are printed, the most common talking point will become grades. Have a parent-teacher conference before the grades are assigned, then the conversation might focus on the learning rather than the attainment. Just some thoughts.

  5. avatarIan Tymms
    Twitter: itymms

    A great conversation, Jabiz, and thank you to all the parents who have contributed.

    I’m another of the English staff in the Middle School and Jabiz mentioned the conversation I had with a parent about values. What I found so refreshing about this conversation was that, instead of just academics (which we also discussed), we talked about what kind of person this parent wanted her son to become.

    What I have been thinking about since the interviews is the way we sometimes see “academics” and “values” as being in opposition. One example of this is the conversations I find myself having about how to justify time away from class for “non academic” programs including Service. But I think we make a mistake if we see “academics” as being in opposition to other elements of our curriculum; having a well grounded, thoughtful, resilient, engaged, collaborative, compassionate student is an important foundation for academic achievement. I think that UWCSEA achieves remarkable results because of it’s focus on values, not despite them. I also feel that, as a learning community, we need to be exploring, understanding and articulating the relationship between values and academic achievement with much more complexity. I’m very grateful to the parent who challenged me to do this.

  6. avatarMel Hamada
    Twitter: mjhamada

    A great conversation starter Jabiz. I have found a huge shift from teaching HS or MS science or math to teaching PE in terms of what is discussed in conferences and the number of parents who come to see me. The PE discussions tend to centre around some grades but more about how to improve physical fitness and physical activity options at our school and in Hanoi. I have tended to let parents frame our discussions so I don’t waste our 10 minutes discussing the topics they aren’t interested in but I post index cards up outside my room with our guiding questions, topics, assessment so if they didn’t see the wiki there are some ideas to start.
    I am thinking about posting up research about how much activity is declining and the importance of parent modelling of physical activity and. the importance of this on children to have more real life application discussions too.
    However as a parent, I want to know that my child is happy, safe, being curious and is working on tasks set, that s/he is known to you and that you can see development of their character and skill set in your class. Are you able to build their intrinsic tempo or are they opting out? And these are there things I ask as a parent. I have seen my children draw, write, create in class so I want to know about their emotional well-being and whether they are being challenged in a variety of ways that are safe and

  7. avatarMike Kaechele
    Twitter: Mikekaechele

    Jabiz, you have made me think the most about myself as a parent. I will enter conferences from now on as a stronger advocate for my children’s learning and ask questions about that. It is hard as a teacher going to conferences and not being offensive (at least for me, yeah I am that parent). But if I can at least focus the conversation on learning vs. grades that will be a step in the right direction.

    This post also brings up a sad point for me. One of my students is leaving our school this week because of grades. He is bright and really is more into learning and passions (including music, yeah!) than grades. Unfortunately his parents can’t see this. They give lip service to learning, but all they really care about is his GPA. I wonder what they will do when he returns to his old school and still doesn’t get all A’s. Unfortunately we are fighting a strong culture that worries more about college admissions than passions and learning.

  8. avatarMichelle

    I am a student in a class called EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I was assigned to read your blog. I think you bring up very valid points. As educators I think we shouldn’t focus so much on academic as we are taught to do. Sure, it’s an important factor in students education but so is what we have to offer them, as people. We are not only educating them, but we are also shaping them to become adults. I really enjoyed reading your blog. It’s always interesting to read teachers blogs. I get to read about what I have to expect in my future teaching career.

  9. avatarDan Machacek
    Twitter: dmachacekjisedu

    Your thoughts on this very popular topic are very well articulated Jabiz. I have to admit that his topic consumes much of my time and still with little answers. One thing that I have notice is that the idea of teaching student to understand how they learn is important. Some say that it always has been and we have always been doing it. I think many of us would recognize “The Habits of Mind”(Google it if you’re not). But the difference now is that we are starting to collect evidence of it. We are not just collecting evidence of the “learning goals” or “standards” any more. I am also noticing that some school are reporting on it on report cards. Even education experts such as Guy Claxon is writing books on it and speaking around the world about it. If you are not familiar with his work, Google, “Building Learning Power”. BLP is focused on “how” students learn. Specifically: Resourcefulness, Resilience, Reciprocity and Reflecting there are a number a capacities give these some specificity as well.

    The Jakarta International School has accepted the challenge of reporting on “how” students learn as well as “what” students learn. And as most understand once you decide that you will report on it, you have to make it apart of how you teach. Although we are at the beginning of our journey with this idea, we are seeing students engaging with it and being able to speak the language. As expected some teachers feel that this is “extra stuff” they have to teach, some have found that they are already doing it naturally, but just needed to “name it” and that helps us and students be able to articulate it. We are uncovering strategies that make “Building Learning Power” feel natural in the classroom. For example some find that “split screen” class to be effective. Letting kids know “what” they will be learning seems pretty familiar in most classrooms, but letting kids know “how” they will learn is some that is new. Do let your kids know “how” they will learn at the beginning of the lesson? Better yet, have you ever asked them to think about what they did to help the learn? Do they have the language to describe “how” they learn? Do they know what they need to improve on?

    I hear many of us say that we are all life long learners and that we want to great more life long learner of our students, than we better start giving them the knowledge, skills and understanding of how they can do it. I think if we focus on this the grades that report to parents how much student have achieved may become less relevant.


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