Sunday, November 2, 2014

Parent-Teacher Conferences: Check In, Clarify and Challenge

I vaguely remember dreading parent-teacher conferences when I was a student.  My parents would go off to school, usually on a weekday evening, and meet with my teachers, and I'd sit at home wondering what my teachers were going to say about me.  My fears were mostly unjustified: my teachers liked me, and my internal lack of motivation must not have manifested itself in ways obvious to them.  Still, there was something intimidating about being left out of the conversation.

For this reason, I deeply, and personally appreciate CAJ's approach to parent-teacher conferences, where the students are not only invited, but required to attend.  I write this blog-post between conferences and have been happy with how these conversations have gone this year.  I attribute this largely to the fact that I have made a point of keeping in contact with the parents since the start of the school-year.

During the first week, I sent the parents my course syllabi; during the second week, I sent the parents the guide for the first unit; when I met the parents on Back-to-School Day in September, all of them already had some idea of what their students were learning in my classes.  For conferences, the parents of my students are coming in as well-informed as they have ever been.

In past years, I would spend a majority of the 7-minute conference time simply filling the parents in on what we have done, what we are doing and what we will do in class.  Just as I would turn the conversation to the particular student, the bell would ring and the parents would need to move on to the next conference.
This year, with the parents already in the loop, my conversations have been primarily with the student, the parents serving as witnesses and hopefully at-home accountability/follow-up.  The purpose of conferences this year has been three-fold: to check in, to clarify, and to challenge.

Firstly, I begin the conference by checking in with the student: how are they feeling about the way class is going; what learning activities have been particularly helpful; how are certain long-term assignments coming along (especially for my AP students); what book has the student chosen for Guided Outside Reading?  Checking in gives me a quick read on how a student is doing beyond what I see in my grade book and also gives me a sense of their perceptions of me and my class.  It also serves as a reminder, in the event that the student has not gotten started on their G.O.R., or their AP reading logs.  The reminder is directed toward the students, but when the parents become aware of a specific task that their child should be working on, there will be a higher chance that the student will start early, if only to appease their parents' persistent queries.

Secondly, I clarify assignments or policies from class.  This year, I have put a lot of energy into clarifying the "understandings" category in my grade book.  I introduced this to the whole class early in the year, but now I have the chance to make sure the students are on the same page as I am.  I invite each student to email me at any time, to schedule a meeting on any understanding they wish to improve.  I now rest assured that the students are at least aware of the opportunity; whether they will avail themselves of the opportunity remains to be seen.

Finally, I challenge the students in areas of struggle.  For several students, this area has been timeliness, and the challenge has gone hand-in-hand with an offer of help in planning a schedule and budgeting out time.  For other students, the area has been reading comprehension, and I have been able to provide specific recommendations for books to read, or for strategies to use while reading.  For other students still, the weak area has been their direction as they write and I provide a verbal reminder of comments that I'd left on their essays.  Again, to discuss these areas of need with the students in this context is to invite the parents into the solution as agents of accountability.

Of course, there's a bit more to the conferences than the three C's; I make a point of encouraging the student on something, whether an aspect of their work, a comment they have made in class, perhaps even something I've observed outside of the classroom, but I've always tried to do this.  The three Cs are new, and are a product of my increased communication with the parents.  For the first time in my career, these three days of conferences felt intimately connected to our regular instructional days, and rather than feeling like an unwelcome disruption, they felt like a profoundly meaningful opportunity to reflect and to look ahead.  I will endeavor to maintain these lines of communication with the parents as the year goes on--it is a valuable partnership and one which I firmly believe will foster true understanding and true growth.

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