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As Parent Teacher Conferences Vanish: When No News is Just No News

Published in ChicagoNow, April 9, 2019

There is a trend in education to dispense with the traditional biannual parent-teacher conferences. Now that every test and homework score can be accessed by parents online, the thinking goes that these conferences are meaningless and time-wasters. Parents who want conferences may request them. Otherwise, they should assume no news is good news.

I would agree with this change if the parent-teacher conferences were like most I attended for my children once they were in middle and high school. In the five minutes allotted, the teacher would read the test scores aloud followed by “Any questions?” and “Time’s up.” However, that was not true of elementary school conferences in my day. Since scores weren’t the only thing that mattered back then, we would talk about things like how happy my child was, how much she participated in class, how well he got along with his peers, and anything I was curious about regarding her school experience.

During my many years as a preschool director, I stressed the importance of these conferences to my staff. In the fall, I urged teachers to solicit parental input to understand each child better, and to listen more than they talked. I urged teachers to share specific anecdotes about the child and to be sure to say something positive. If there were concerns, they should frame them as things to work on together and set goals with parents to address them. In all conferences, teachers were expected to ask parents what works at home when discussing problematic behavior.

We set aside fifteen minutes for each parent-teacher conference, more if the child had special needs. Even though we were talking about young children, I believe every student, regardless of age, is far more than a test score. And I believe eliminating regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences puts an unfair burden on parents, who likely feel sheepish about requesting a conference unless there is a problem the teacher has brought to their attention.

I know fifteen minutes per student may be unrealistic, but even in a shorter timeframe, perhaps our preschool guidelines would be helpful for teachers to see that they can share information with parents that is far more meaningful than a list of test scores:

No surprises – If there are any issues, the parents should already know about them.

Start with the positives – Every child has them and every parent deserves to hear about them.

Give details about what the child is doing – Especially for children with special needs, parents probably get very little information about their child’s day.

Avoid using buzzwords like hyper, whiny, shy, unfocused, inattentive, gifted, manipulative, defiant, immature, loner, quirky – Describe what the child does instead. It’s not a teacher’s job to diagnose or label a child.

Listen as much (or more than) you talk – This one is very important. Teachers can learn so much about children from their parents. Take advantage of this opportunity, especially at a first conference.

Establish a collaborative relationship with parents – Working together in the best interests of the child is always the way to go.

Show that you like the child and why – This means so much to all parents, and especially to parents of children with special needs or behavioral issues. They already know their children can be challenging, but they also need to know that they can be endearing.

Not receiving feedback from a teacher does not mean a child is doing well. Nor does looking at a bunch of test scores online. Placing the burden on parents to request a conference makes them feel like they are bothering the teacher if they have not received negative reports. This unfair to all parents, as they deserve to know how well their children are doing, what friends they have, how happy they are at school, and what they are learning.

If conferences are done in a meaningful way, they establish a partnership between parents and teachers. Without making them part of expected, in-person communication for every child, the opportunity to know how a child is really doing from the teacher’s point of view and what the child is experiencing from the parent’s point of view is lost.

Not everything can be reduced to an online score. And often no news is simply that. No news. Parents and children deserve more.


by Laurie Levy
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