When Students Lead Parent-Teacher Conferences, Everyone Benefits

It’s conference season – the time of year when parents and teachers come together to discuss each student’s progress.

In most schools, this is a private conversation between a child’s teacher and his or her parents. It usually starts with interesting introductions. The teacher provides an overview of the student’s performance, and then explains the report card or other set of data. The teacher may point out some areas in which the child could improve. The parent may ask some questions. It is brief.

The teacher continues to have 20 to 30 strikingly similar conversations, and the parent may or may not pass on some information to the child.

This long-running routine is often transactional, and reinforces a power dynamic: the teacher is the expert. The parent is a passive participant, sitting there just listening and learning about his child, as if he hadn’t been there since he was born or during a tantrum last night or because of all hands in between. The subject – the child – is not even in the room. For lack of a better comparison, it would be as if your boss and boss were discussing your performance and upcoming goals without you being present.

There is another way. More and more schools, including my former school in Oakland, California, are turning from parent-teacher conferences to “student-led conferences,” in which a student, whether a 7- or 17-year-old, facilitates conversation with their teacher and parents.

The student usually begins by sharing what he enjoys at school, as well as what he considers his strengths and challenges. They may read their writing out loud. They often review their report card or dataset, explaining what it means to them and why.

This arrangement does not have to be fancy or formal. At my school we used graph paper and folders. Kindergarten children use smiley faces to indicate the skills they have learned. Third graders made simple bar graphs to capture their improved reading levels. Eighth graders are getting a little more sophisticated with Google Slides.

Regardless of the format or delivery, the important thread is that the student always leads the conversation. The teacher may chime in to provide more context and the parent may ask clarifying questions or provide input, but it is the student who does most of the talking.

In the end, the student will often conclude by sharing the next steps he or she will take to reach the goals that they Designation. The student, in student-led conferences, is both a presenter and an active participant – quite different from the student’s role in a traditional parent-teacher conference.

Many educational reforms are criticized for being too expensive or fashionable – and rightly so. However, there is a free and effective approach that has huge implications. Puts the student in the driver’s seat. It allows them to share, reflect and bear on what they have learned. It sends a clear message to the student: We trust you, we believe in you, and we are here to support you. It also gives parents an opportunity to ask questions and provide input to the person they know best, without the potential of feeling ostracized by the teacher and parent power dynamic.

I’ve seen this approach work beautifully for non-English speaking families, in particular. I remember watching a seventh grader lead a bilingual conference. They sit in a circle. The student shared her portfolio, explaining her progress to her father in Spanish and then to her teacher in English. The student was able to take advantage of her bilingualism to facilitate conversation so that all languages ​​are equally honored and valued.

My other favorite memory was attending Mathieu’s Spring Conference. Mathieu was a fifth grader and hadn’t seen much success in school until that point. During the fall conference, he said he wanted to improve reading and multiplication. In the spring, he proudly presented his growth, explaining to his parents that he had climbed two levels in reading and had learned his multiplication facts. He smiled as he saw their tearful reactions. Not only did he reach his goals, but he was able to explain how he got there and see the pride that brought his family.

Are there instances where a teacher and parent should communicate without the student being present? Certainly, there are more suitable conditions for an adult-only conversation. But when it comes to student learning, how can they not be there?

Does this work for young children too? Yes – I saw it myself. They may need more scaffolding and teacher guidance, but ask the preschooler what they have learned, and they will proudly tell you how well they can count and which letters they know. Here are great examples of these conferences in action at different levels: kindergarten, middle school, and high school.

To give the students plenty of time to prepare for this conversation – a project many of them are excited to lead – we will allocate a study period or two before the week of the conference. Every student from kindergarten through eighth grade will have the opportunity to create his or her portfolio or ‘data file’. They would choose their favorite piece of writing, color in their bar graphs, think about their progress, and write down their goals. There are now many templates, tools, and resources available to educators to help guide the process. This takes learning time, but it also teaches valuable life-long skills for setting goals, thinking, and planning action.

Some school systems like Achievement First Greenfield, a charter network in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, take this even further. They know that students, especially teens, are greatly influenced by many people in their lives. Therefore, every student has a dream team–a group of adults, from coaches to chaplains to relatives–committed to supporting the student’s success. They meet more frequently than a regular conference twice a year, which gives the student the opportunity to share progress, challenges, and goals with the people who are most important to them.

If we want students to feel excited and excited about their learning, the least we can do is invite them into the conversation.

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