Set the Agenda for Conference Success

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5 ways to make parent-teacher conferences run smoothly

By Rachel Wilser

Hi, teachers! Welcome to 2020. It’s February, and hopefully you’re back in the groove after winter break and you’re making progress with your students. I always loved this time of year in elementary school because I feel like you start to see huge jumps in your students’ knowledge and understanding this time of year. It’s particularly rewarding as teacher, because you’re starting to see the returns on everything you’ve put in from August until now.

Because it’s February, you’re likely coming up again to another round of parent-teacher conferences (PTCs). I’ve shared before about how to use data to run a conference, but today I want to talk just about the logistics of parent-teacher conferences. A decade ago when I was first teaching, we scheduled our conferences by sending home letters with cut-off attachments for parents to send back, then compiling all the notes and putting them into a schedule or calendar, which I actually enjoyed doing. In 2020, there are websites that can accomplish this for you, like Sign Up Genius and Doodle, if that’s important to you. It’s certainly a huge time saver.

Regardless of whether you choose to have parents sign up digitally or manually, I’d suggest reaching out to them initially 2-4 weeks before your conferences. I’d confirm time slots 1-1.5 weeks ahead of conferences. Once you’ve scheduled your conferences, you’ll obviously need to prepare for them by making sure you have accurate and current data, and making sure you have any specific concerns you’d to address ready. Beyond scheduling and preparing, I’m sharing 5 tips today to make sure your actual conferences run smoothly.

  1. Stick to your time slots.
    It takes one late family to push your entire schedule off track. Sometimes parents are taking off work, coming on their lunch, balancing multiple conferences; there are multiple reasons why families would need their conference to stick to the allotted time. As the teacher, you need to make sure that a) your conferences fit into the allotted time, but also b) that you’re not letting late families or parents push off the entire schedule. If you have 30-minute blocks for your conferences, I’d suggest planning to fill 25. The other 5 will likely be filled with greetings/questions, and allow you to still stay on time. I’d suggest timers to make sure you’re on track within your conferences. On the opposite end, you shouldn’t extend a family’s time if they’re late, as that can also push off your schedule. There are a million reasons why a family or parent would be late for their conference time, some within their control and some not. I would make sure you let parents know ahead of that you can’t extend conference slots, and how they can contact you if they’re running late.
  2. Hang signs.
    Putting up clear signs both within and outside of your room allow families to arrive and understand where to wait and what they should do while waiting without having to interrupt you. You can even add on a sign to have parents knock on the door at the time of their conference if you haven’t already come out to greet them. Creating clear signs with directions allows families to arrive and settle without having to interrupt your current conference.
  3. Create a welcoming space.
    Having water available and asking parents to find a recent work sample from their child can create a welcoming and more relaxing space for families. I liked to set out a table with a few children’s books and puzzles, as well as some coloring sheets with crayons, for families while they wait. I usually also liked to grab a case of small water bottles that parents can sip while they wait. It’s a minimal cost and time setup, but it really pays off in setting the tone of conferences.
  4. Consider activities for younger siblings.
    Younger siblings can be a necessary evil during conferences. They can be really distracting if parents didn’t bring anything for them to do during conferences. I always tried to just pull out something that kids of a variety of ages could play with independently during conferences. Usually in our room it was a big bin of Duplos; I would just pull it and set it on the carpet during our conference times.
  5. Stick to your agenda.
    Parents definitely need a time to raise their own concerns, but you can also really easily fall down a rabbit hole and get off-track in both time and content if you let parents lead. During conferences, I always made sure to start by saying that I’ll give parents time to share towards the end, but that I had an agenda for us first. Generally, that’s mollifying and we can continue with the content I had originally planned, and then they have the last few minutes to raise any concerns that they had. It’s a nice balance.

Parent-teacher conferences are an important tool to share data with families. It’s important that we’re respectful of their children and their time. These tips helped me run conferences smoothly, and they should help you, too. Enjoy connecting with your families during this conference season.

Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.

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