First, a 30-minute student-led parent-teacher conference with one child’s homeroom teacher. Then, six five-minute conferences with another son’s individual subject teachers. And lastly, a 10-minute conference with my third child’s English language arts and social studies teachers, and another 10-minute conference with his math and science teachers—both mostly led by him. We parents of multiple school-age children attend so many of these meetings, and there’s nothing universal about them.
I have three children in grades three, five and seven, and as you can see their schools’ offerings vary greatly. Some are great, some aren’t. But the worst of the bunch is the one to which I can’t even get in: [pullquote]Sort of like when Jimmy Buffett tickets go on sale, by the time I logged on to sign up for a conference, all the “tickets” were gone.[/pullquote] But I suppose that’s to be expected when there are only forty slots for more than one hundred students.
Let me explain. My seventh-grade son’s school has two days of conferences coming up, for which I must give the school at least some props—many middle and high schools forgo conferences entirely. Each conference is five minutes—yes, that’s it—and you have to sign up quickly lest you miss out and receive a message, in all caps, “NO SLOTS AVAILABLE. SIGN UP IS FULL.” Alas, I was too slow on the draw, with one exception. And, at last count, just four academic teachers out of thirty had any five-minute slots still available.
The education advocate in me thinks this is a problem. [pullquote]Should a parent who wants to attend, but doesn’t sign up until they receive a second email from the principal be denied a face-to-face conversation with their child’s teachers?[/pullquote] How can a school justify such a policy? And how widespread are these practices?
Regardless of the reasons for it, there’s something inherently wrong with a system that excludes parents who want to attend a parent-teacher conference because they aren’t one of the first 40, out of 100, to sign up. Yes, some parents are probably happy with information gleaned from their child’s assignments, report cards and online grades, but many others value the advantages of face-to-face time. It can be an invaluable opportunity to discuss what the teacher is seeing in class and what they think you can do to support your child at home. It affords you benefits you can’t get via a report card, email or phone call.
I understand that these policies are likely in place for logistical reasons, not because administrators and parents think they’re ideal for students and parents. In large middle schools and high schools, conferences for all students with all teachers are hard to pull off, which is probably why so many don’t even try.
If a teacher with one hundred students had a five-minute conference with each of their parents, that’d consume more than eight hours of time. This would have to be done in the evenings, on early release days or on days set aside on the calendar for conferences. And that’s only for five-minute conferences that most parents consider to be too short.
But [pullquote]schools have to find a way to connect more teachers with more parents.[/pullquote] And my experience at my seventh-grader’s school tells me they aren’t. So here are a few ideas to change that.
Fortunately, this can be done. In researching this subject, I discovered that schools all over the country do conferences in very different ways. Many of the systems leave much to be desired, but some are getting it right. One example is Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, which Lisa Valerian Vahey, whose children attend, describes thusly:
We do two days in the fall without students in attendance—one day the conferences are from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm; the other day from 12:00 pm to 8:00 pm. There are ten-minute slots, and you can meet with any/all of your teachers. I’m the Parent-Teacher Organization co-president, and we work hard to make this experience welcoming—coffee and snacks, a greeting at the front door and a table filled with parent and family resources. To sign-up, parents go online (there are still some kinks with that), or they can call the school to make appointments if that route works better. Our system isn’t perfect yet, and we know family-school partnership is hard work, but it has payoffs that benefit all kids. It takes intentional effort on a regular basis—so these conference days are one lever, but there are others we are working on as well.
The truth is, with such disparity around something as basic as parent-teacher conferences, greater options for parents seem to make sense. Some parents don’t care about conferences at all and would rather communicate with teachers on their own. Or maybe not at all. Whatever their preference, this contrast in how parent-teacher conferences are handled is another example of the countless differences in how schools do things and why parents should have more freedom to choose the place that most suits their family. Unfortunately, too many parents don’t have sufficient options, so more schools can and must improve the way they organize parent-teacher conferences.
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting fellow.
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