Putting students at the center of conferences
The date has been on my calendar for months: Parent-Teacher Conferences. I’ve done it a thousand times in the role as a teacher, but stepping into the role of a parent in the conference is still something I’m trying to get used to. I usually prepare in advance and make a list of my questions or concerns at home. I pepper my son with questions trying to understand how he is feeling about school and what his areas of strengths and weaknesses are and I receive a simple “I’m good at math and I like science” or the very frequent “let’s just not talk about that now Mommy, it’s not school now. Let’s go play.”
Then something unusual happened…. I received a notice from the school inviting my son to come to the parent-teacher conference, turning it into a student-led conference. Now, the educational side of my brain thought immediately, “This sounds great! I’ve read a lot of research articles about the positive impact of student led conferences.” Then the parent side of my brain thought, “But what about all my questions I have for the teacher? Will the teacher be completely open and honest with my son there?” I knew I would be bringing my son, but I still wasn’t completely sure how it would work out.
The next day my son came home and said, “I can’t wait for you to come to my student-teacher conference. I’ve been working so hard this week to prepare and I have some surprises for you for when you come.” Who could resist this introduction? Now I’m getting really excited for the conference.
The same week I received a worksheet to fill out and return to prepare for conferences that had two areas I would like my son to work on and one area that I was proud of. I loved filling this out because I knew it would be a good entry point for the couple of questions/concerns I wanted to address at the meeting.
Finally… the parent-teacher–student conference time was at hand and it was incredible! My son sat between his dad and mom and shared work that he had prepared as evidence of the areas he was proud of and then areas he would like to work on. He showed me his pre-assessment data and post-assessment data and how much he learned in math. Then he shared a writing assignment that had multiple steps and how proud he was of the final product because of how much he was able to write and explain. He got so excited about a story he was sharing about how he was trying to help a fellow student know how it was unsafe to push people on the stairs that he jumped out of his seat in a highly animated fashion to describe the situation. Then he agreed with his teachers that he should not rush through problems when he thinks they are easy because he makes careless mistakes and he said he’d try to work on organizing his materials better. These descriptions were light-years away from my typical afternoon responses of “Math is good. Writing is hard.”
At the conclusion of the conference I inquired as to how many teachers were going to be doing the student-led conferences and I learned that this whole grade level decided to give it a try. I am so glad they did! The conversations and agreed upon goals created a link between home and school, but also with my son. Now we are all on the same team with shared goals, with my son being at the center of the conversation.
For more information on initiating student-centered conferences, check out the articles below. A few suggestions from my experience, but also from the research literature include:
- 15 minutes is not long enough, 30 minutes is more appropriate to allow for the student to share
- The advance communication to parents is key. This is new for parents and the upfront explanation was helpful.
- Advance preparation of the teachers/students is necessary to ensure a successful meeting.
- Goal setting sheets with input from teachers, students, and parents helps to drive the conversation to next steps.
- Including a balance between what the student is proud of, alongside areas to work on is key