I have a confession to make. I am an educator who doesn’t enjoy participating in parent-teacher conferences as a parent. Our son is a junior and our daughter is a senior in high school, and aside from going to open houses, I can’t tell you the last time we’ve participated in conferences.
It’s not because we’re not interested in our children’s progress as some would choose to interpret our absence. Far from it, actually. If I had to identify when my interest in conferences began to wane, it was when our daughter was finishing elementary school.
One of her teachers informed us at the conference that our daughter, who was typically a strong student, was struggling in reading and writing. When we asked her for samples of our daughter's work and assessments to show us what she meant, she didn’t have any to share with us.
I suspect that our daughter may have been struggling to stay engaged with the grammar worksheets and spelling lists that were a regular part of literacy instruction, but there was no way for us to determine what the challenges were without data. We made the time to come to the conference and wondered why the teacher didn't take the time to prepare that information for us.
As a mom and someone who has been an educator for the past 20 years, I am not only very interested in what is happening in my children's classrooms—I can also share my expertise in partnership with my children’s teachers. Unless I volunteer this information, however, most of my children’s teachers never know what I have to offer, and even when they do, not all teachers express interest in partnering. All families have expertise and experiences that can benefit the learning communities of their children. Unfortunately, we're not always asked.
A School-Family Partnership Moves in Both Directions
I get it. As a former classroom teacher, I know how hard it is to fulfill all of the many responsibilities teachers have on their plates. What’s not okay, though, is not spending the time to authentically partner with students’ families, and then complain about (or stand silently by while others complain about) the lack of family engagement without evaluating how schools may be contributing to family engagement challenges. Resorting to comments about families not caring about their child(ren)’s education supports biases and stereotyping and will not help teachers and schools to create meaningful partnerships with their students’ families.
My husband and I rarely hear from teachers outside of receiving invitations to open houses and conference nights. A few of their teachers use the Remind app to keep us posted about what’s happening in their classrooms, and a couple of their teachers have reached out to us by email to let us know what and how our children are doing. This is, however, more the exception than the rule. Usually, we only receive progress reports and report cards with limited comments. We have regularly provided feedback about our experiences to the district when we fill out the annual family engagement survey, but family and community engagement practices have remained largely unchanged.
The logistics of open houses and conferences are not always inviting. If the open house begins at 6:00 p.m., that doesn't necessarily allow enough time for family members who work outside the home to get home in time to participate, and not everyone can take time off from work if they are usually working at that time.
It’s hard to set aside time for an open house where we will only spend less than ten minutes with each teacher. Ten minutes is not enough time to fill out the parent contact information and questionnaires about our children, hear a teacher’s vision for students, provide families with a chance to explore the learning space and for families to ask questions and have those questions answered.
Sometimes there's not enough transition time built into the open house schedule, and some of the classrooms are spread out so by the time we arrive to hear from one teacher, it’s just about time to leave to go to another class.
I’ve also witnessed times at open houses when teachers have communicated needs (i.e., not enough books for each student in an ELA class to have their own copy of a text), and a parent has shared a solution (i.e. a parent who expressed that the PTO would be happy to fund the purchase of additional books so that all students could have their own copies to support annotation and note-taking), only to have the teacher/school not follow-up. It’s hard to continue to feel motivated to go to these events when it feels like your voice is unheard.
In the spirit of partnership, please consider these tips to help you facilitate effective conferences with your students’ families:
Evaluate the version of family partnership that exists at your school, and determine what version of family partnership you would like to exist with your students’ families.
Provide flexible options for meeting (i.e, times, dates, virtual or phone conference options).
Advocate for increasing conference times to ensure that your students’ families have the opportunity to share information about their child(ren) as well as time to share celebrations, concerns, ask questions and receive responses to those questions.
Invite families to open the conferences to ensure that their voices are heard before the allotted conference time runs out.
If families are not able to come to the school, consider engaging in home/community visits to connect with families.
Consider the impact of not regularly communicating with your students’ families on their decisions to participate or not participate in open houses, curriculum and conference nights.
Speak up in the teachers’ room if you hear colleagues making disparaging comments about students’ families’ participation in open houses, and conference and curriculum nights. If families don’t come to the school when invited, encourage your colleagues to inquire about the reasons why, and create ways to overcome the potential barriers.
Consider using the Bloomz, Remind and Seesaw apps to regularly connect with families about what’s happening in your classroom.
And as you plan your conferences this year, here are two resources to help you make the most of the time you have with your students' families:
Afrika Afeni Mills is Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with BetterLesson. She works with teachers, coaches and administrators to transform instructional practices and empower all students to thrive. A former teacher, administrator and prominent thought leader, she has been featured on podcasts discussing the school-to-prison pipeline and white fragility and co-presented Required ...