How to Lead a Learning-Focused Conference

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Maintaining a focus on learning is crucial to a successful parent-teacher conference
"When students write essays or do math problems, we want to see their thinking and their work - We’re never satisfied that giving an answer really means they grasp something fully. In order to lead a conference that’s effective and powerful, we need to hold ourselves to the same standard."

For many educators, the month of September seems to pass at light speed, but the approach of October should be a reminder to teachers, students and parents alike that the heart of the academic year is underway. In many schools and districts around the county, October is parent-teacher conference season. Done right, parent-teacher conferences are a powerful opportunity to ensure a learner’s entire academic support team is on the same page and build a positive bridge of community and communication between home and school. Done wrong -- well, every teacher’s had one of those!

If you’re trying to lead (or facilitate) positive, learning-focused conferences this October, here are a few tips and tricks to help you set the right tone, communicate the right information and craft a positive, actionable message:

Prepare With Documentation & Evidence
Many teachers prepare for each parent-teacher conference ahead of time by writing down a few notes about each student and considering which information is most critical for each family. While that’s a great first step, basic brainstorming is not an adequate amount of preparation to have a truly meaningful, difference-making conversation about learning.

When students write essays or do math problems, we want to see their thinking and their work - We’re never satisfied that giving an answer really means they grasp something fully. In order to lead a conference that’s effective and powerful, we need to hold ourselves to the same standard. Never talk vaguely about student achievement or, especially, struggle. Instead, use artifacts such as graded assessments, student reflections, portfolio pieces or learner profiles as anchors to lead an in-depth discussion where points are illustrated, not just made.

Don’t Allow Behavior to Dominate the Conversation
When a student’s behavior is impacting their learning (or that of others), parent-teacher conferences are an appropriate forum to discuss the issues and strategize together. With that said, one of the biggest mistakes teachers and administrators make when conferencing with the families of students with behavior issues is focusing exclusively on behavior. Behavior-centric conferences create an adversarial tone and send the message that the learner is not a valued member of the academic community.

Here’s a rule of thumb: Don’t talk about behavior more than half of your allotted conference time. That means that if you have 15 minute conference blocks, you shouldn’t be discussing behavior for more than seven minutes. The other half of the conversation should be focused on learning: establishing what grade-level proficiency looks like and comparing current student work to that standard, reviewing areas of academic strength and struggle, discussing work habits in school and at home, etc. That focus on learning communicates that, even if a student presents behavioral challenges, you’re still invested in their education and rooting for them.

Make Plans to Follow Up
One of the worst aspects of the current parent-teacher conference model is the scheduling: they occur early in the school year in most places, and many districts allow for only one conference time per academic year. That setup simply doesn’t provide adequate time and space to build an effective bridge between school and home. That’s why you need to give yourself (and your students’ support systems) a little homework at the end of each conference.

Before you wrap up, take a minute or two to discuss how you and that learner’s support network will communicate with each other in the future. You could agree to send a bi-weekly check-in email, talk about setting up another conference before or after school at the close of the next grading period, or just close by emphasizing that you are always available to have meaningful, constructive conversations about academic progress and strategy development.