Tips for a Successful Parent-Teacher Conference

Good communication between parents or guardians and teachers is essential for student success. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to communicate today including social media, email, texts, and apps such as Remind.

The face-to-face conference, however, is still popular with 45% of parents according to the annual report  Trends in Community Engagement Report, that has surveyed over 500,000 students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members. Schools at every grade level will set aside time for these valuable opportunities for parents and teachers to meet an discuss student academic progress in conferences that last a few minutes.

Sometimes, however, more than a few minutes is necessary. Parents may feel the need to communicate with a teacher about a student's academic or social progress, and a teacher may feel the same. In those cases, here are some general strategies for teachers to consider before discussing a student's social or academic strengths or weakness.

Communicate With Parents Before a Conference Is Necessary

Teacher talking to parents at parent teacher conference
Getty Images/Ariel Skelley/Blend Images

Regular communication with parents can help prevent issues down the road. When a teacher has a student who is struggling in either their academics or their behavior, a line of communication must begin with his or her parents with either notes or phone call. This way if and when there is a need to have a conference, teachers and administrators will not be faced with a situation where the parent becomes upset because of a lack of communication.

There is nothing worse than holding a conference late in the school year and having the parents ask, "Why is this the first I've heard of this issue?" A proactive environment in which the teacher is keeping the parents informed is the best environment.

Come to the Conference Prepared

If the student in question is having a hard time with their classwork, a teacher should have student work to show the parents. An explanation of how work is graded is also important.  A parent may better understand the problem if there are samples of their child's work along with examples with grade level expectations.

Similarly, if a student is misbehaving, then the teacher should log incidents or make anecdotal notes of this misbehavior in preparation for the conference. Being prepared with these anecdotal notes at a meeting can help parents understand how their child is behaving.

Start With an Agenda

Teachers must always consider first that they share a common goal of helping a student with their parents. Parents should have a clear sense of the nature of the conference, so information about what will be discussed before the meeting is necessary. Providing an agenda will help keep the conference organized and focused.

Welcoming the parents(s) is important. Even in difficult circumstances, parents should feel they are part of the school community.

Begin and End on a Positive Note

 There is always something nice to say about a student (ex: creativity, sense of humor, work product) and a teacher should begin any conference with a compliment or an anecdote about a student strength. 

At the end of the conference, a teacher should wrap things up on a positive note. Certainly, there should be a summary of any problems discussed, and a plan that will require a followup, a phone call or a future conference. The teacher must also show a willingness to keep the lines of communication open with parents, who should feel encouraged to do the same.  For example, a teacher may say at the end  "Thanks for meeting with me today. I know that working together we can help Johnny succeed. Please stay in touch or contact me if you have any questions."

Dress and Act Professionally

Teachers should dress professionally at all times, but especially for a parent-teacher conference. If possible, conferences should not be scheduled during "spirit week" or on a "dress down day" at school.

A teacher must also avoid talking about other teachers in the district who are not present. If a parent brings up a problem with another teacher, the parent should be first directed to call and/or meet with that teacher. Often, the issue is a miscommunication.

If a concern is raised that requires administrative attention, then the parents should be directed to contact an administrator with their concerns. Regardless, after the meeting, a teacher should report any parental concerns about another teacher to the attention of an administrator.  Administrators should be prepared before talking to parents.

Include Someone Else in the Conference

If the teacher knows in advance that the meeting may be contentious, it is important that a fellow (cohort) teacher or a guidance counselor or administrator be invited to the parent-teacher conference. This is especially true if the teacher has reason to believe that the parent might become agitated or irate. Having another individual there can have a calming influence on the situation.

Be Attentive

Teachers must be active listeners in any parent-teacher conference, and taking notes is important. During the conference, teachers must make eye contact and keep their body language open. Parents should be allowed to speak without interruption, without a teacher becoming defensive. Active listening techniques can help with this.

If the parents are bothered, a teacher can validate their feeling by saying something like, "I understand that you are bothered by this situation. What can we do to help your child be more successful?" This ensures that the conference stays focused on the child.

All teachers must remember that sometimes parents and their children just want to feel that they have been heard.

Avoid Eduspeak

Teachers must avoid acronyms and terms that might confuse non-educators, or if they must be used, a guide to the different terms should be provided. During a conference, a teacher should pause to make sure the parents understand.

For example, if a teacher is discussing specific situations such as scores on standardized tests, all terms should be clear to the parents. This will not only ensure that the parents understand but it will also help future communications.

Think About the Room Setup

Teachers should avoid sitting behind a desk with the parents on the other side. This arrangement sets up a barrier that can make parents feel unwelcome.

Instead, a conference should be moved to a set of desks pulled into a circle or to a table where any papers can be shared. The objective is to create an open area where everyone is seated equally.

Be Prepared for Upset Parents

Every teacher has to deal with an irate parent at some point. It is important to remember that the best way to deal with parents who may be confrontational is to remain calm. There may be unknown circumstances that contribute to difficult parent-teacher conferences, so the most important way to deal with them is to be prepared.

Proactive communication can help a teacher get a sense of the tone of a meeting before it happens. Teachers can research to see if there have been difficult meetings with parents in previous years. A most important rule is that administrators must be invited to any meeting with parents who have been combative in the past. If a parent does become irate during a meeting, the meeting should come to an end and be rescheduled for a different time.