One of the most eye-opening opportunities for me as an educator has been rotating around different sides of the parent-teacher conference table. I began on the teacher side, then pivoted to principal, parent, and before I ever anticipated, across from my former students as my own children’s teachers. Each perspective I have gained on parent-teacher conferences has enriched the other and allowed me to appreciate the experience in a more nuanced way. One of the schools I worked at presented conferences differently than I previously or since experienced and their method posed such incredible benefit for all involved, it ought to be replicated. Defying the long-associated suspense with the ‘what are my teachers telling my parents about me’ element of conferences, this school encouraged students to join their parents and be present for the conversation.
I remember as a child wondering what my teachers would say. I remember wondering what would come through in their meetings; if they liked me, if they recognized my achievements, or noticed what I may have hoped they did not. There was a lot of mystery for me associated with this bi-annual evening that I connect with now in my own children. I remember the relief and validation I felt when I received positive reports and the defensiveness or defenselessness when misrepresented or misunderstood and wishing for them to see things my way. I remember feeling things ought to be different but not yet poised to affect that change. Over the years and around the table, I have since learned from different colleagues and families as to how to be increasingly sensitive to the needs of all involved, especially the students themselves. I do not believe anyone likes being spoken about; not adults and not children; not professionals and not students. It may be an opportune time while rethinking so many other elements of the educational process, to rethink the parent-teacher conference dynamic.
There are many pros and cons to parent-teacher conferences; the foremost benefit of which is checking in. In any industry it is beneficial to have checkpoints throughout the year to consider progress and areas to be worked upon toward greater productivity. In education this is no different, and certainly there are times throughout the year for school administrators to check in with teaching staff and exchange ideas and observations toward mutual goals. What we offer for students at parent-teacher conferences is a sort of microcosm of that meeting, but there is a common practice to address parents about their children, without the children present. I am not sure when or why this became a normative way. Having experienced an alternative, with (high school) students being invited and encouraged to attend, it is challenging to go back without feeling an obvious missing voice at the table.
If a goal of parent-teacher conferences is to share feedback about the student’s classroom performance, would it not be beneficial for the student to hear that information? If the comments are positive, how meaningful for a student to hear them first-hand and how helpful for the teacher-student relationship that can be. If the remarks are critical and contain concerns, how important for students to hear that too. Certainly, any conversation of that nature would be solution-oriented and how crucial for a student to take ownership of what needs improving and commit to a workable plan toward that end. Additionally, in the event of sharing observations where further clarity is warranted, how necessary for a student to be given the opportunity to self-advocate and share their point of view. There are great teaching and learning opportunities to be had from meetings with each of these relevant voices included. Of course, students need to be emotionally ready for this kind of discussion and there is room to debate what that starting age or grade should be. I would suggest that for most students, around fifth grade would be right.
There is direct benefit for teachers and parents to have students present at these meeting as well. There is no communication like direct communication. In a parents’ sincerest attempts to recall a teachers’ sentiments, they cannot help but alter the message according to their own memory and understanding. With the great deal of effort that teachers invest in preparation for these meetings, how much more effective can that work be when conveyed directly to those they pertain most to, namely the students themselves. So too, as much as a parent may try to do justice in relaying their child’s experience to a teacher, can and should they be doing that in place of a child expressing themselves? A parents’ presence can demonstrate an important alliance with their children to offer praise as well as to reinforce commitment to any needed adjustments in work habits going forward. In addition, a parents’ presence conveys an alliance with the teachers that they are in fact part of a team effort to support this student in their academic, social, and emotional growth. In both regards, a parents’ presence can be powerful, but not to the exclusion of and not undermined by the presence of the main subject: the student.
At times there may be ideas or inquiries that out of sensitivity for the student and appropriateness for the matter at hand, parents or teachers may wish to discuss privately without the student present. For such occasions, a phone call or e-mail can be communicated in advance of or in the aftermath of an in-person conference. Especially if there is a sensitive matter to discuss, how important for the student to be given the right to hear and respond to the issue. Their impressions, understanding, and feedback should be welcome in conversation, not only as an important teaching tool for the student to self-advocate but also for the parents and teachers to truly value their perspective and the light it can shed on a situation.
There is a well-known adage to treat others as you would like to be treated. Children’s voices are lacking and needed in parent-teacher conferences. The meetings themselves need to be renamed to mark their inclusion. A parent-school partnership revolves around ownership and commitment from the students themselves and perhaps it is time for the culture of conversation to reflect that. No matter what side of the table we participate in conferences from (literally or figuratively, taking Zoom into account of course), we can only stand to benefit from student participation, offering them the gift of being heard and hearing from us in return.