Teacher with parent and student
For Teachers

Time to Shake Up Parent-Teacher Conferences & Back-To-School Night

By Jennifer Gunn August 24, 2018

Picture it: Hoards of parents line the hallway, waiting for their five precious minutes with you, their child’s teacher. Inside the classrooms, you go over grades and discuss how their child is doing as quickly as you can, and are disappointed by the no-shows. On Back-to-School Night, you try to make connections but time flies by, and again, you wonder if you’ll get to meet the parents who cannot attend. Surely, there’s a better way.

Isn’t it time we shake up how we engage with parents? Let’s form real and lasting partnerships with teachers, students, and families. Here are seven ways to make a change in your learning community.

Parent-teacher-student conferences

Who says that only parents and teachers should meet? Students can play an active role in conferences too! After all, it’s their education being discussed. Better yet, let your school conferences be student-led, providing a reflective opportunity for kids to speak to their own learning and their needs moving forward. Way to teach and practice self-advocacy!

This is also a chance for students to do some goal-setting and to be accountable to themselves and to the adults in their lives. “Instead of having students stay home while their parents and teachers talk about them in the third person, have students lead the conference. The student could be prepared for the conference through a collaborative review of their previous work and a guided reflection on the connection between their efforts and the quality of their work,” says Monica R. Martinez, author of Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the 21st Century.

Check out these helpful student-led parent conference templates.

Advisory-based conferences

An advisor is a student’s go-to adult advocate in school and, in many instances, an advisor also serves as the family’s point of contact. Advisory-based parent conferences can save time and give parents a one-stop conference to discuss their student’s academic and social-emotional progress. Advisors should be aware of the academic needs, behaviors and overall progress of their advisees.

Instead of making parents visit each subject teacher individually, they can visit their student’s advisor and receive a detailed, holistic report. And for advisors, the number of potential meetings is limited to just those in one’s advisory class! Advisory-based parent conferences are catching on in middle and high schools, really elevating the potential of a strong partnership between the advisor, the student, and the student’s family.

Use these goal-setting sheets in your advisory class and share them with parents during your conference:

Skype or FaceTime conferencing

Parents are extremely busy, just like teachers, and family dynamics are ever-changing and varied. According to the 2016 U.S. Census, over 20 million children live with only one parent, while nearly 3 million live with no parent present in the home.

“During the 1960-2016 period, the percentage of children living with only their mother nearly tripled from 8% to 23% and the percentage of children living with only their father increased from 1% to 4%,” the Census Bureau reports.

Many parents have multiple jobs, child-care responsibilities, disabilities, or are simply unable to travel to their child’s school in the small window of time during Back-to-School Night and parent-teacher conferences. None of these factors mean that a parent doesn’t care about their child’s education. What it does mean is that schools need to modernize their conference options and work harder to connect with parents.

Thanks to technology, it’s possible to host face-to-face parent-teacher meetings remotely using Skype, FaceTime or any video chat software. It can easily happen using most smartphones! Building a partnership with a student’s home team is critical, and video conferencing ensures that parents who can’t make it to school still get that visual and develop a personal connection with their child’s teacher(s).

Skype in the Classroom is free and it’s a way for parents and educators to connect.

Conferences in the community

Sometimes school staff members don’t live in the neighborhood in which they work. This can lead to a disconnect between teachers and their students, and between teachers and students’ families. Engaging in community tours and in-neighborhood conferences at local meeting spots can ease the apprehension or difficulty parents may have with getting to the school.

“A community walk is a parent-led tour that highlights the resources and challenges of the school neighborhood,” says Anne T. Henderson and Melissa Whipple in their article How to Connect with Families. “Touring the neighborhood will help teachers and staff members appreciate the life and soul of the community where they teach, develop deeper relationships with families, identify community resources to tap into, and enrich instruction using what they learn about families’ cultures and backgrounds. Teachers can learn more about the realities of the physical environments in which their students live.” Set up meeting points‚ like a park, library, or local church, so that families can connect with the tour, meet educators, and connect with other local families.

Let parents do some social-emotional learning

If your school is teaching social-emotional learning strategies in the classroom, why not extend the same training to families? “Parents and families are critical partners in helping their children develop social and emotional know-how. They can model the kinds of skills, attitudes, and behaviors we want all students to master. And they can be important advocates for SEL at school,” according to The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Hosting workshops for parents on things like listening, anger-management, self-esteem building, mindfulness, and relationship-building can help students and parents build stronger interpersonal relationships and reduce stress.

Read more about how to engage families in SEL.

Incorporating tech

Sending letters home in students’ backpacks just doesn’t cut it for today’s busy families. And for those who can’t make it to the school, letters and flyers fail to make a personal connection. Parent-teacher conferences are an opportune time to get connected with your school families using technology.

  • The Remind app is free for teachers and it allows educators to text reminders to families as a group — without giving out their personal number.
  • Set up a Facebook group for parents and stay connected all year long.
  • Send out a quick Google form to parents so that they can submit questions before the conference. That way, you can be ready with responses and resources when they arrive.
  • Use FlipGrid to have students and/or parents record video responses to a teacher prompt and share them during the conference.
  • Avoid hallway waiting time congestion by using Signup to schedule appointments for parents!

Bring in the community

Go beyond the sit-and-chat model of parent-teacher conferences and bring the outside in to create a community resource fair! End the wasted time of hallway waiting by inviting local organizations, representatives, and businesses to host tables in the hallways and connect with families. Partnerships can include things like after-school providers, health-care professionals, community-based organizations, official agencies, local businesses, and charities. You could also invite local organizations to Back-to-School Night to get everyone connected.

For more community-class partnership ideas, check out 5 Ways to Involve the Community in Your Classroom.

Enhance Back-to-School Night with SEL and tech

Often, Back-to-School Night means less parent-teacher time than conferences since parents often follow their student’s schedule to visit their classroom(s) for a short period of time as a group. Families get to see their child’s learning space, get a feel for the teacher and hear an overview of the class and their learning goals.

For families who can’t make it to the school, teachers can offer a tech-assisted remote option. Use Google Hangouts, Skype or Facebook Live, so that parents at home or at work can still have the full experience, seeing the visuals of the classroom and the teacher.

If you do SEL activities in class with your students, why not open your BTS Night session with something like mindfulness to show parents what their children are doing each day? Even just a minute or two of SEL can help build a bridge between home and your classroom. Have parents who speak other languages? Ask a translator or even a trusted older student pre-prepared to translate your words. Alternatively, offer a pre-printed, one-page handout with your verbal bullet points and the night’s activities in the family’s home language so that they don’t miss a beat.

Check out CASEL’s resources for building SEL partnerships with parents and schools.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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