Thursday, December 2, 2010

PT Conferences- Necessary or Outdate?

At a recent staff meeting the faculty was directed to offer suggestions for improving parent-teacher conferences in our 7-12 building. I offer this question: Why do we have conferences in the first place? What is the purpose? How effective are conferences now? How are we evaluating this effectiveness?

In recent conversations with various administrators, department heads, faculty, and other educational leaders, my observations are that the success of parent-teacher conferences is based on the attendance of parents, how these conversations improve and change academic behaviors, and the connections made between home and school. The purpose is to inform parents how their child is performing in the classroom and his/her progress in the learning process. The state merely mandates that there be X number of hours set aside for communication between parents and the school in regards to the learning process; it does not mandate how that will be done. Thus, the school is not legally bound to parent-teacher conferences per se.

If our goal is to get more parents into the building on a regular basis, we need to consider why they are not entering the building. I passionately believe the school needs to provide a positive, non-threatening, inviting environment that makes the parents want to be here. All parents want to see their child succeed. Yes, even the kid who is failing multiple classes.

Given this, I propose the following for your consideration:

1. Back to School Night
My observation is that the first set of conferences is the most attended, especially by new families and the new 7th grade students in the building. This leads me to believe, through observation and conversations with parents, that one of their main purposes is to meet the teachers to make a personal connection. They want to know what kind of person is working so closely with their child. First impressions obviously mean a lot! If we have a Back-to-School Night at the beginning of the year to invite parents into the building, walk through their child's schedule, meet their teachers, hear what the expectations are for each class, get a feel for what the year will be like in that classroom, and to ask questions and chat with school personnel. This is a way to fulfill the need for the families of the "new kids on the block". Everyone gets started off on the right foot. Relationships are formed immediately. There is a face to attach to the email or phone call that comes later. The obligation to come would be to get their schedule for the coming year.

2. Orientation Days
There is a verbalized need to help transition life from the elementary building and the walk across the parking lot to the MS/HS building. We all know there are physical, emotional, social, mental, and psychological changes that happen during middle school. First time parents are new to this. How can we help them embrace these changes and not fear what is about to happen to their "baby"? How do we empower the parents to make difficult decisions in matters of discipline, homework, and social norms?
The 7th grade orientation may look like a pep talk or a child development lesson or a lecture on the rules of the building that are different than what they are accustomed to and what is expected of their child on a daily basis now that they are in the "big building". This may also include a walk through the school to help them understand the layout, where their child is going and how he/she is moving during the school day, or where to contact someone if they need help with XYZ.
There is also a need to transition from a middle school setting to high school life. What changes take place? Why are my grades so important now? How will the choices I make now affect my opportunities later? What path do I want to follow after high school? How do I keep my options open?
The 9th grade orientation may look like a college fair with the different departments set up in "booths" to explain what the minimum requirements are for graduation, what classes are suggested for entering a 2-yr college, 4-yr college, the military, job placement, and other post-secondary opportunities. Former students could be invited back to share their wisdom of life after high school from each of these different avenues. The counselor and administrators would be available to help with a 4-yr plan. It would be strongly suggested to have parents attending to listen to the same message as their child and to collaborate with the school personnel to create a long-range plan to meet the goals of each individual student. Not only may this decrease the number of adds/drops from classes at the beginning of each semester, but may also give a purpose for why they are taking each course. This 4-yr plan would also be reevaluated on an annual basis.

3. Student showcase
Sometime throughout the course of the school year, maybe a couple of times, parents and the public are invited in to an academic celebration. Yes, I mean celebration - make a big deal of the great things students are doing in their classes. They would showcase the projects they have created in their classes, the knowledge that they have gained as a result of taking each course by demonstrating what they know and can do. What makes math interesting? What is cool about the shop? How are the laptops used in PE? How are kids connecting to the outside world? How are they collaborating, working as a team, and gaining other necessary skills to compete in the 21st Century?

4. Alternative Communication
My district is a 1:1 school - each student is issued a laptop to use for school-related purposes. They have the tools at their fingertips to access resources and maintain close communication with their teachers, peers, and the outside world. @limbert65 has been known to say "You can't build a 21st Century school in a 19th Century community." We have the tools to connect with any parent, anytime, anywhere. Teachers are constantly in communication with parents via email, phone calls, notes home, blogs, online grading, ball games, the local convenience store, and countless other ways. There is no excuse for a student to go unnoticed in our district. If there is a problem, teachers are communicating. Period. For this purpose, parent-teacher conference is an antiquated tradition for addressing the communication issue.

5. Parent Volunteers
Ok, so this may not fulfill the parent-teacher conference alternative, but we do need to help parents feel welcome and invited into our environment. Our elementary has a host of parent volunteers, but that seems to stop when their child takes that transitional walk across the parking lot to the "other building". Parents and community can help out in a class or the office, make concert programs, make copies, run errands for teachers, tutor struggling students, help students with troubleshooting computers, present in classes about their job, their hobbies, their life experiences, and much more. Anything to get parents involved in the school, in the classes make them feel a part of the learning environment and sense of civic duty as well. Students get a break from hearing their teachers and build relationships with community members.

Finally, I am not necessarily proposing a complete end to any conferences. However, I think with the age of technology and all the ways we have to communicate the classroom to home that we are hanging on to an antiquated tradition that needs reform. I will gladly set up a face-to-face conference with any family that would request one. I don't think it should wait until a specific date on the calendar, twice a year. The key is constant communication! Stagnation is a step backward. We need to question what we are doing on a regular basis in order to move forward even if that affirms that what we are doing is effective. If we never question our actions, we never get to see what else is out there. What are other ways to bring parents into the building to make connections and build relationships between school and home?

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