Parent Conferences: 5 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Philosophically I believe in student-led conferences as the best means of celebrating at the end of certain marking periods. Students developing portfolios, learning to communicate their growth and areas for continued focus, and taking ownership of their learning are all very valuable experiences in education. However, at present we’re faced with Parent-Teacher Conferences happening over the course of the next couple days and I’ve been thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years when it comes to PTCs.  All of the items below are things that I did, mistakes that I made, and the way I would handle those situations differently today.  Hopefully this is just a friendly reminder for all of you and my mistakes are things you’ve learned to avoid over the years as well.  I’ve grown and changed a lot as an educator, here are five of the ways I’ve changed when it comes to parent conversations:

  1. Who Should Be Proud?:  It feels good when someone is proud of you, right?  I used to tell my students all the time, “I’m proud of you!”  I hoped it made them feel good, it probably did.  When it came to conference time I would say to parents, “You should be proud of your student!”  However, over the years I’ve learned to reframe this conversation with both students and parents.  My new way conveys the same message but the implications are tremendously different.  I now tell students, “You should be proud of yourself for…” and I say to parents “Your student should be proud of themselves for…”  The message is still received, you’re recognizing the student’s efforts and achievements.  However, it’s important that students learn to be proud of themselves and not rely on others for validation.  They should learn to know when they’ve been successful and receive that intrinsic reward!  Try it out, “You should be proud of yourself for…”
  2. “Surprise!”:  Most people don’t like surprises.  Parents at conferences hate surprises.  When I first started teaching I didn’t have the courage to contact parents when their student wasn’t being successful in class.  The first time they found out was when we met at conferences, that didn’t go well!  I learned very early on that I needed to be in touch with parents as soon as possible, especially if their student was struggling in any way.  “No surprises” has been a motto for me ever since!
  3. Where’s the Evidence?:  When I first started meeting with parents I would tell them everything I was thinking about their student but when they asked me how I’d come to these conclusions I couldn’t show them anything.  I, of course, believed that I knew what I was talking about and that my assessments of their students were correct.  However, my data was arbitrary.  Number grades that penalized for late homework, zeros for projects not turned in, extra credit for helping me clean the room after school, my “assessments of their learning” weren’t that at all.  No rubrics, no standards with multiple assessments, nothing.  I learned that I needed to be able to, not only for the parents but for myself, show actual evidence of learning.  I stopped penalizing for late work, I didn’t allow students to earn a zero (they had to do the work or they received an “NG/No Grade” for the grading period), and extra credit was removed from my vocabulary.  Students had clear expectations, knew how they’d be assessed, received clear feedback, were given multiple attempts to demonstrate their learning (retakes!), and were always held accountable.  I never lacked for evidence again and never needed it either, no one ever asked because it was always there from the start!
  4. Growth Mindset:  You’ve all heard of Carol Dweck’s theory about “fixed” vs “growth” mindsets.  This isn’t that.  I used to sit down with parents and tell them about their student’s scores.  Why they received an 87% instead of a 90% or whatever.  Over time I learned that achievement was a lot less important than growth.  As I learned to use evidence (see above), I was able to clearly show growth from the beginning to whichever time period we were talking about.  This was very important because so many of my learners were at different places in their education.  So, whether they were two grade levels behind or two grade levels ahead, we were always able to have a conversation about their growth throughout the course of the year.  This probably carried more weight with the high-achieving students’ parents than anyone, they valued seeing growth and also the plan for continued growth!
  5. The Rose Ceremony:  When I first started meeting with parents I would just spew whatever I thought out onto the table and hoped they would leave without questioning me too much, I needed a better plan!  You’ve likely heard of things like “Two glows and a grow” or “Two stars and a wish”; the idea of celebrating some positives and then presenting an area of growth is nothing new.  Over the years I’ve developed an organization to parent conversations that I call “The Rose Ceremony”.  I start with the “stem”, the constant that is holding up the flower.  This is typically something about the students work ethic, curiosity, or prior knowledge.  It is the thing that is demonstrated very regularly and really drives their learning (or lack of it in some cases…but no surprises!).  Then we talk about the “buds” and/or “flowers”, these are the areas where we’ve seen growth and the student is “blossoming” or we’re on the verge of a breakthrough in the case of a “bud”.  Lastly, there’s always a “thorn” or two to be discussed; these are the “grows” or “wishes”, the areas of focus moving forward as we continue to grow.  I use the analogy of “The Rose” for myself, it’s not something that I share with parents but it’s how I visualize the pieces of the conversation that are the most important to me.  

You guys are all awesome teachers and your students/parents should all be very thankful for your efforts to make this first quarter so successful for them!!!  Thank you!

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