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Teaching moments: How to make Parent-Teacher conferences better

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 8:26 p.m. MDT

Teachers Elaine Endo and Julien Pessin meet with Bailey Copper and her mother Patty during a parent-teacher conference. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Teachers Elaine Endo and Julien Pessin meet with Bailey Copper and her mother Patty during a parent-teacher conference. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — As a veteran teacher and a mom, Elaine Endo has mastered the tricky calculations on both sides of the parent-teacher conference equation. Her dual experience helps her turn testy parent-teacher conferences, which are underway throughout the state over the next few weeks, into positive, productive experiences.

Endo is a second grade French immersion teacher at Foxboro Elementary School in North Salt Lake. She has taught school for 36 years.

During past conferences, it has sometimes been Endo's duty to tell parents that their child is under-performing or acting up at school. As the mother of two adult daughters, she knows well the parental urge to protect and defend one's child, so she proceeds with care.

"Some parents have already made up their mind on what they are going to hear before they come in," Endo said. "They come in ready to assign blame. It's an emotional perspective they are coming from, and I sure can understand that as a parent, so I try to defuse that emotionalism."

  Bailey Copper listens to her teacher during a Foxboro Elementary School parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake  Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Bailey Copper listens to her teacher during a Foxboro Elementary School parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Endo can look back on hundreds, maybe thousands, of parent-teacher conferences, and most were warm, positive experiences. The few negative ones stay in her mind, though.

Parents have their own reasons for trepidation where parent-teacher conferences are concerned. Herndon, Va. resident Julie Frederickson recalls countless queues for three-minute meetings, where introductions were barely over when a buzzer rang. Next!

She once suffered through a meeting with a teacher so unyielding that she wouldn't allow Frederickson's autistic son, Michael, to work math assignments on graph paper so he could keep unruly number columns in line.

Frederickson, mother of four sons, can look back on positive conferences that strengthened teamwork with teachers, too.

Teachers Elaine Endo, right, and Julien Pessin, center, meet with Bailey Copper during a parent-teacher conference. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Teachers Elaine Endo, right, and Julien Pessin, center, meet with Bailey Copper during a parent-teacher conference. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

There's one in particular that stands out in her mind. It's the one at which a teacher looked her in the eye, and told her he just loved teaching her son Carter "because he thinks out of the box and comes up with creative answers, — because he asks follow-up questions, — and because he thinks about things in a creative way."

"He won me over," Frederickson said. "He brought up things I didn't really recognize in my kid. I knew that no matter else he had to say, we could deal with it."

The teacher's insightful assessment of her shy, sensitive son showed Frederickson he understood and cared about her boy. A partnership was born — one that allowed two of Carter Frederickson's most important mentors to celebrate his successes, examine his academic shortcomings, and work for improvement together.

  Bailey Copper listens to her teacher during  a Foxboro Elementary School parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake  Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Bailey Copper listens to her teacher during a Foxboro Elementary School parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Differing perceptions

When a child is sailing through school with few problems, positive parent-teacher conferences happen easily. But, when things aren't going well at school, they can devolve into finger-pointing sessions that leave everyone feeling frazzled, child included.

Part of the problem might be that parents and teachers have differing perceptions about their relationship. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows discrepancies in what parents and teachers say about the conferences, and about the relationship between schools and parents in general.

Eighty-one percent of parents surveyed said they attend parent-teacher conferences, but teachers said only 57 percent of parents attend. The chasm between parents' and teachers' perceptions was even greater when they were asked about school open houses (back-to-school nights): most parents says they attend (84 percent); schools say the majority don't (49 percent attend).

 Patty Copper listens to her daughter  Bailey Copper read French during  a Foxboro Elementary School parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake  Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Patty Copper listens to her daughter Bailey Copper read French during a Foxboro Elementary School parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics showed gaps in perceptions about parent involvement in supporting children's school attendance, monitoring homework and encouraging reading. Whether parents or teachers answered the survey more accurately is hard to determine.

The perception gap itself might be the most important take-away, but it isn't really news. Parents and teachers already know about the ominous aura that hangs over some parent teacher conferences.

Frederickson said she always feels jittery about meeting with her children's kindergarten teacher for the first time.

"It's the child's first exposure to a classroom without you there," she said. "They are expected to perform and act and socialize in a certain way, so I always go in with a little bit of anxiety. I hope things are going well, but I always have some reservations that maybe there is going to have to be some kind of intervention."

Foxboro Elementary School 2nd grade teacher Elaine Endo talks with Bailey Copper during a parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake  Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Foxboro Elementary School 2nd grade teacher Elaine Endo talks with Bailey Copper during a parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Staying positive

Endo establishes an upbeat note for conferences by inviting students to be present, showing samples of their best work, and by staying in close touch with parents throughout the school year. Those are strategies recommended to teachers by a panel of experts assembled for a webinar sponsored by McGraw-Hill Education.

It's important to set a good tone for parent-teacher conferences by preceding them with positive communication, said Lisa Michelle Dabbs, an educational consultant who was formerly an elementary school principal and adjunct professor for Concordia University.

The first communication between parents and teachers shouldn't be about a problem at school, Dabb said. She advised teachers to focus on strengths at parent-teacher conferences, but to offer one or two opportunities for improvement, too. Share personal observations about the child, ask questions, take notes and listen, she said — good advice on either side of the teacher's desk.

Foxboro Elementary School 2nd grade teacher Elaine Endo and French immersion teacher Julien Pessin meet with Bailey Copper during  a parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake  Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Foxboro Elementary School 2nd grade teacher Elaine Endo and French immersion teacher Julien Pessin meet with Bailey Copper during a parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Support, please

As a parent of children with learning challenges, Frederickson knows what it's like to go to a conference ready to do battle for her child. She has seen parents of special needs children accompanied by attorneys at parent-teacher conferences. However, she finds that bringing an open mind and positive demeanor is more useful. She tries not to let her emotions trump reason.

"If you can be honest about your kids' strengths and weaknesses, that's valuable on both sides," she said. "No kid is going to be perfect at everything. I've always gone in with appreciation of the time teachers are dedicating to my kids, and the extra things they are doing. If there are issues, teachers are then much more willing to work with you. It's so counterproductive to go on the attack, and put teachers on the defense."

Frederickson's willingness to partner effectively with teachers bodes well for her children's success. New research from North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California, Irvine finds that parental involvement is a more significant factor in a child's academic performance than the qualities of the schools they attend.

Foxboro Elementary School 2nd grade teacher Elaine Endo  with Bailey Copper during  a parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake  Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Foxboro Elementary School 2nd grade teacher Elaine Endo with Bailey Copper during a parent-teacher conference in North Salt Lake Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"Our study shows that parents need to be aware of how important they are, and invest time in their children – checking homework, attending school events and letting kids know school is important," says Dr. Toby Parcel, a professor of sociology at N.C. State and co-author of a paper on the work. "That's where the payoff is."

Some parents expect teachers to be entirely accountable for their children's education, Endo said. She tries to help them understand how important they are to their child's success at school. Setting goals for improvement is a key part of Endo's conferences, and she wants parents to buy in to the goals along with their children.

Kids present, or not?

Opinions diverge regarding whether children should be present at parent-teacher conferences. Frederickson prefers to leave her children home when she meets with teachers.

"I've never felt like I could be as up-front and honest about my concerns if my kid is sitting right there," she said. "I would like to be frank, and I would like the teacher to be as frank with me as possible."

Inviting students to parent-teacher conferences is a growing trend, though. A study published in the Elementary School Journal said such conferences improved communication among parents and teachers and increased "positive conversational style."

Glenn Yetter, a Pennsylvania sixth-grade teacher and educational consultant, takes the idea of involving students a step further by placing his students in charge of parent-teacher conference. He told McGraw-Hill's webinar participants that 90 percent of his students' parents attend the student-led conferences.

Yetter's students create a portfolio of work to show their parents, and set goals for improvement. He also asks them to fill out a report card on themselves (he gives the grades that count, though).

"It's always interesting. Most kids tend to grade themselves a little harder than I do," Yetter said.

"The biggest part is the accountability factor," Yetter said of his student-led conferences. "The student has to take ownership of their learning, and take action for the future."

New directions

The digital age is improving and increasing communication between parents and teachers, said Greg Garner, an educational technologist in Austin, Tex., as part of the McGraw-Hill webinar.

Garner said teachers are using Skype video-conferencing software to increase flexibility around parent-teacher conferences. Skype file-sharing allows teachers to show student work to parents who can't come to conferences.

Endo said the parent-teacher conference is one of many ways for parents and teachers to build their partnership. If Endo has a daily behavior tracking agreement with a parent, she can use her cell phone to text a quick daily message, and even accompany it with a photograph.

"I try to communicate as professionally as I can through emails and phone calls," she said. "I'm a mom too, and I really understand these situations. I empathize as much as I can. But, I also want to let them know I'm the professional."

"'Please trust me,' I'll say. "Your child does act differently here, and that's why this is a concern to me. Let's work together and try and find a solution for this.'"

Teacher tips for Parent-Teacher Conferences

Do more than talk about grades.

Figure out a way to seat parents comfortably and expedite lines.

Let parents tell things about their child.

Share stories about what each student does in class, and display items that demonstrate student learning.

Ask parents how they want to stay in touch, including emails, phone calls and texts. Keep communicating.

Source: Nancy Flanagan, Education Week

Parent tips for Parent-Teacher Conferences

Talk to your child before the conference about how things are going at school.

Make a list of topics you want to discuss.

Give personal insights at the conference about such things as medical issues and emotional upheavals that might affect your child's school performance.

Be open-minded. Parents and teachers form a partnership, so their relationship should not be adversarial.

Leave on a good note, and let the teacher know how to contact you.

Source: U.S. News

EMAIL: cbaker@desnews.com

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