This post was originally published in Education Week Teacher.
Parent-teacher conferences can be some of the most rewarding—or the most stress-inducing—experiences of the school year for teachers. If students are making progress academically and thriving socially, it’s a joy to discuss these achievements with families. But often, teachers may need to have more difficult conversations—discussing strategies for students who are struggling, or fielding parents’ questions about new school or district initiatives that teachers are implementing in their classrooms.
Sometimes, these programmatic changes can be extremely stressful for parents. One example, which I’ve encountered often, is the phasing out of gifted education pull-out services. Some schools do this in favor of meeting the needs of all students in a whole-class setting through differentiated instruction.
During the first year or two of this transition, teachers often have to address the questions, concerns, and criticisms of parents whose children had previously been pulled out by a specialist and are now receiving this enrichment in the general classroom.
When a parent presents concerns to a teacher who is still adapting to this change herself, it can make the teacher anxious, or even put her on the defensive. Once on the defensive, teachers (and humans in general) struggle to redirect conversations to a more positive place. Ultimately, in these cases, the parent-teacher conference ends poorly, with both parties feeling unable to move forward with a good plan for the child’s education.
To avoid these precarious situations, I recommend the following six steps for ensuring conferences with contentious (or concerned) parents are productive:
Step 1: Summarize what the parents say to ensure a common understanding.
“It sounds like you are concerned that your son is bored/not challenged in math now that he is no longer being pulled out for enrichment services.”
Step 2: Acknowledge and validate the parents’ emotion.
Parents are entitled to feel how they do. When you validate the emotion, parents no longer have to be on the defensive.
“I completely understand and agree with your frustration. Your son should absolutely be engaged and appropriately challenged in math. Please know, I want the same thing as you.”
Step 3: Ask questions instead of making statements to get a clearer picture of where the parent is coming from.
Teacher: “What is making you think your son is bored in math?” Parent: “He says he is.” Teacher: “Does he say why or when he is bored?” Parent: “No. He just says he is always bored.”
Step 4: Respond with evidence.
“I understand. Now, what I want to do is determine if your son is bored because he is not being challenged, or if your son is bored because he doesn’t find the content relevant.
Either way, it is my job to make sure we find a remedy. I want to ensure I choose the most appropriate approach. Take a look at this information with me. [Here, share recent formative-assessment data related to the math concept.] What I see here is that your son is being challenged. He’s making appropriate growth toward mastering this content and is on track to master it soon. That leads me to believe your son may be bored because he doesn’t see why it’s important to learn this.”
Step 5: Suggest an action, and ask the parents if this suggestion sounds reasonable to them.
“I think it would be helpful if I chatted with your son to see if we can get more information as to the cause of his boredom. Once I know that, he and I will create a plan of action and share that with you. How does this sound?”
Step 6: Follow up with the student and parents.
After the conference, talk with the student about the issue at hand and create a plan. Then, bring the parents back into the loop. Ideally, the student is also a part of this conversation. Consider using technology like FaceTime, Skype, or a group chat to involve all parties.
Parents want what is best for their children, yet they don’t always know what is best when it comes to their education. Students can excel in classroom environments that may be foreign to parents. But if parents are worried about their child’s needs being overlooked, it can make conferences feel like an attack on teachers as both professionals and human beings.
This is the most unfortunate of circumstances because when it comes down to it, parents, teachers, and students all want the same thing: for students to learn. By following these six steps during parent-teacher conferences, teachers ensure that they form a partnership with parents rather than an adversarial relationship fraught with negative emotions and power struggles.
Lisa Westman is a writer, speaker, and consultant who works with school systems across the country to implement student-driven differentiation, standards-based learning, and instructional-coaching programs. She has over 15 years of experience as a teacher and an instructional coach specializing in differentiation. She is the author of Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin). Connect with Lisa on Twitter: @lisa_westman.