For years, parent–teacher conferences* have operated in a fairly consistent way. Family members come to school. They sit down with the teacher. The teacher leads the meeting. Family members ask questions. A discussion ensues. And the process repeats with the next family.
It’s a process that’s not really broken. Therefore, schools have continued to use it without making many significant changes to the process. However, many schools have made changes in an attempt to further improve the process and add even more relevance. They have taken a new approach to parent–teacher conferences. Some schools are letting students participate in, and even run, the conferences.
(*NOTE: At Teacher Peach, we ordinarily refrain from using the term “parents” because we recognize that there are many diverse ways to create a family unit. We recognize that it is important for teachers to identify and welcome all of the adults who are important to raising each and every student. However, since the term “parent–teacher conferences” is still widely used, we have used it in this article. But we’d be the first ones to champion a change to term that is more inclusive for today’s family climate, such as “family–teacher conferences.”)
What Are Student-led Conferences
Student-led conferences are exactly what they sound like. They are meetings led by the students. Students usually have a vehicle, typically a portfolio, to show their work and to help guide their discussion about their academic goals and progress toward their goals. The teacher helps the students set up the portfolio and prep for the conference, but the teacher typically takes a backseat during the actual meeting.
Advantages of Student-led Conferences
Using the student-led approach to parent–teacher conferences has several advantages. The most notable advantage is having students become active participants in the process. Students become accountable for their own academic progress and performance. From the beginning of the year, they set their academic goals. They add work to their portfolios. Then they have to speak to their progress and performance against those goals. Through this process, students learn one of the most important skills in academic growth—the skill of self-evaluation. The format fosters open, honest dialogue between students, family members, and teachers.
Disadvantages of Student-led Conferences
Having student-led conferences can have some potential disadvantages. The main disadvantage comes in the setup. If the conferences are not set up correctly, they could easily become awkward or ineffective. Students must be properly prepared to run the conference and have completed portfolios to guide them, so they will not struggle through the meetings. Students can be very nervous about the process, especially if they have never done it before.
In addition, family members must also be properly informed of the expectations in the new process. It’s new to everyone. Recalibrating everyone’s expectations ahead of time helps through the transition.
Five Keys to Holding Effective Student-led Conferences
If you decide to have student-led conferences, these keys will help you implement the process effectively.
- Create clear and appropriate academic goals for students early in the school year. Make sure they understand and learn how to incorporate the goals so that they can both succeed and articulate the goals in the conference.
- Create student portfolios and make sure projects and assignments you work on in class are added to the portfolio.
- Inform family members in advance of the expectations, goals, and benefits of the new approach. It often helps to create a short FAQ sheet.
- Prepare students for the review format. Alleviate their nerves before their first conference by having them practice their presentations. It can even help to do a little bit of role-playing to help students become more comfortable presenting their own strengths and areas for future growth.
- Set ground rules for the actual meetings and communicate them in advance. For example, ask family members to hold questions to the end. Invite family members to write questions on index cards to help them remember the questions. Explain that the students will make the presentation first and that questions will follow. This approach allows students to practice and deliver this presentation without getting distracted or set off course by questions.
Ultimately, some of the best ways to hold conferences seem to be a mix of student-led and teacher-led conferences. Even if you do opt to hold student-led conferences, it can be extremely helpful to reserve a few moments at the end of the conference for family members and teachers to interact privately. You might also plan to have an additional one-on-one meeting or phone call with the family members of select students to debrief about the conference or other issues.
Show Your Appreciation
Implementing new processes can be difficult for all involved. Change can trigger anxiety, even when the change may ultimately be for the better. When you implement student-led conferences for the first time, it can be very beneficial to take the time to show your appreciation for all of those involved. Thank everyone, from faculty to students and families for adapting to and participating in the new process.
Recognize students for their involvement in the process. You might also send a card before the conference to a student. Check out the “I Believe in You” and “Great Choice” Card Sets by Teacher Peach. These send your students a clear message that you have confidence in them.
You might also opt to give each student a certificate of participation or to distribute a reward card. Try Teacher Peach’s Bravo Cards. This assortment of cards has eight unique messages so that you can choose the most appropriate kudos to give to each student.
Show family members you appreciate their willingness to adapt to the new process by sending them a personal note as well. Teacher Peach’s set of Partner Cards contains a variety of messages for various occasions. Keep them in your desk for conference time and send them out to family members any time of the year.
What has been your experience with conferences? How do you run teacher–family conferences in your school? Let us know.