Over the next few weeks, parents and teachers will sit across from each other in tiny chairs and discuss a child’s progress in a parent-teacher conference. And though parents and teachers alike may experience the anxiety of expectations, conferences represent one of the most enduring and important home-school communication mechanisms used to discuss a child’s growth and progress, according to senior research analyst Heidi Matiyow Rosenberg of the Harvard Family Research Project.
That’s why the Harvard Family Research Project created the Parent-Teacher Conference Tip Sheets for administrators, teachers and families alike, in order to help encourage what Rosenberg called “the shared responsibility” of student learning. “We wanted to help parents understand their value as partners—with teachers—in promoting their children’s learning and not think their role in conferences was just to listen and passively receive information,” she said. “We wanted to empower them to come prepared with questions about their child’s performance and know that the information they held about their child’s skills, interests, and activities outside of school was of value as well.”
Rosenberg said that the Tip Sheets, which were created in 2010, are currently being updated to broaden the definition of family engagement to include all the contexts in which children can learn, including home and school, but also after-school programs and even community organizations like museums or libraries. In the revised tips, teachers will be encouraged to help navigate choices as well as provide access to more learning outside the classroom.
“We are revising the Parent–Teacher Conference Tip Sheets to stress the importance of using conferences to talk about ‘whole child’ skills, interests, and growth,” she said. “Not just focusing on information related to academic performance. This includes discussing soft skills such as teamwork, critical thinking ability, and other non-academic signs of strength.”
Much of the work the Harvard Family Research Group has done on the Tip Sheets, as well as its Tips for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents: How to Share Data Effectively, stems from a 2003 book by Harvard education professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot called The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other. In the book, Lawrence-Lightfoot discovers through interviewing parents and teachers that both carry baggage from their own classroom experiences into their child’s parent-teacher conference, sometimes making the conference anxious, or even confrontational. She terms it the “Ghost in the classroom.”
In addition, Lawrence-Lightfoot acknowledges that many teachers don’t receive any special training in school on how to communicate effectively with parents. Rosenberg backs this up, saying that even if teachers do receive some training, it’s often superficial. “We have tried to address this knowledge gap,” said Rosenberg. “Among other efforts, creating resources for teacher educators to use in helping preservice teachers understand how to engage and communicate with families. Our book, Preparing Educators to Engage Families, includes a series of case studies using a framework that recognizes that children learn across multiple contexts—at home, in school, and in the broader community.”
Lawrence-Lightfoot contends in the book that she believes children should be present at parent-teacher conferences — after all, she argues, they’re the only ones who know completely what’s going on both at home and at school. “Children can be wonderful authorities, very wise, very honest, very candid, very insightful about what their experience is,” Lawrence-Lightfoot said during a PBS NewsHour piece. “And that’s a valuable perspective to have in a parent/teacher conference.”
But parents and teachers may not always agree. Plattsville, New York, parent Chris Wolff, himself a university-level teacher, isn’t sure that including his fourth-grade daughter in the conference would always render better outcomes. Wolff said that they discuss the conferences with his daughter both before and after, but worries that she may not be ready for an adult conversation about her. “I think I would like to demystify the process of education a bit for her, but I also think that some criticism might be beyond her contextual understanding and may be taken wrong by children. For example, ‘Why doesn’t my teacher like me?’ We usually do find ways to discuss our conferences with her afterwards.”
Best Practices from the Harvard Family Research Group
1. Talk and listen. Educators can make sure that the conference is a two-way conversation by sharing what the student is doing in class, and then giving families a chance to share students’ interests and skills outside of school.
2. Start with the positive. Families appreciate hearing something good. Especially with students who are struggling academically or behaviorally, teachers can begin with what students are doing well, even if it’s not related to academics.
3. Make the information actionable. Providing concrete information and actionable steps ensures that the conference moves beyond the classroom walls. Suggestions for what can be done at home, referrals to after-school programs, and tips for families all help make parents partners, but also create an “enhanced network” of learning supports, increasing the likelihood that students will succeed.