Try This: The New Parent-Teacher Conference
Educators innovate to make a venerable tradition work better.
By Alain Jehlen
Student-led parent-teacher conferences seem to be taking the nation by storm, according to our totally non-random survey of NEA members on Facebook, discussion boards, and various email lists.
Are you using your kids to get to their parents? Take our poll and get a better idea of how widespread this innovation has become.
Many years ago, I began to use student-led conferences in my kindergarten class, says Carole Moyer of Columbus, Ohio. With the students 'writing' a letter to their parents inviting them to the conference [and] sitting in the 'teacher' chair to conduct the conference, they were a great success. It was so rewarding to see special education students be as successful in conducting the conference as the typical students.
North Carolina first-grade teacher Michelle Wise Capen gives her students a check sheet to go over with their parents, to be sure her student-led conferences cover all the bases. Students enjoy showing the parents what they have accomplished, she says. This has worked for me K-5.
And at the middle school level, Kate Ortiz of Charlton, Iowa, reports attendance jumped when student-led conferences began at her school. Students prepare folders of work, comments, etc. for each of their core classes, with documentation from band, special education, standardized testing, their grade and attendance report, etc. They are taught how to share this information with parents [and] how to seek teacher help during the conference if needed. For the first several years, we asked students and teachers to complete a brief survey after their conferences, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Parents can choose to schedule a traditional conference, but very few take that option.
Even among teachers who don't have their students lead the discussion, many encourage parents to bring their kids along and take part.
But students aren't the only lures educators are using to reel parents into school for conferences. NEA members are also using...
Technology, bribes, and a truly new idea—invitations!
One high-tech idea comes from Lori Trisler, who had her fifth-grade students create PowerPoints about what they had learned to show their parents at the conference. Okay, maybe PowerPoint isn't that cutting edge, but it's still not your grandmother's parent-teacher conference. And Trisler says every parent showed up. Can't beat that.
The bribes come in many forms.
Trina Dickerson of South Carolina awards participation points to her middle school students if their parents show up for a conference. She says the points are a powerful motivator for students. (If a parent can't come, the student can still get the points if the parent sends her an email or a note.)
Dickerson combines point motivation with the student-led approach: Students must tell their parents three specific things they've learned in class. Our team always has the highest participation at our middle school, she crows.
Then there's food. High school language arts teacher Kristina Lorett points out that parents of high school students are extra hard to attract to parent-teacher conferences. So, she says, I try to 'sweeten' the experience. My first parent-teacher conference, I offered a dessert bar. I was a big hit! To make sure everybody left happy, in her spring parent conferences, she offered a parting gift of Easter eggs stuffed with jelly beans and inspirational quotes, or a basket of apples. Bribery works, she reports.
But Lorett also uses a lure that works even better than sweets: a personal invitation. So many [parents] came in and said they had several children in the school system and they had never been 'invited' to a P/T conference. I was shocked!
Then there's Lisa Mims of Newark, Delaware, who uses high-tech, bribes, and personal invitations all wrapped together: I send home student-made invitations with a raffle ticket stuck inside. I raffle items that I have purchased from the Dollar Store or that I have received from Teacher Appreciation Day events. The students cannot participate in the raffle if their parents do not attend, so I have a good turnout every year. Once the parents are there, I use a PowerPoint presentation that incorporates pictures of their children. I end with a digital story of their students at work and play. They love it!
What's your secret for a successful parent-teacher conference? Share your ideas with colleagues.
Go To Them
How many times have you noticed that the parents you really need to see are the ones least likely to show up?
Some educators are not waiting for parents to come to them—they're going out to meet parents on their own turf, at their homes, or at coffee houses.
It takes more time, but it does get results, even with parents who are traditionally the hardest to reach.
Katie DeBartolo works at an alternative secondary school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that has many special education students. We never had a lot of luck getting parents to come in, so we buddied up and went to see them. Wow, what an experience! And what a way to place a picture of that child's life in your mind. The parents were very receptive to this, especially since most did not have rides or transportation, or just had a fear of school, she says.
Home visits seem to be getting more popular, although they're probably not nearly as common as student-led conferences—at least, according to the NEA members who contacted us.