Rethinking Parent-Teacher Conferences

A fourth-grade team makes the ubiquitous conferences more meaningful

Thomas Von Soelen

Many school districts have a long-standing practice on their calendars: parent-teacher conferences. Some places have cut these days due to budget cuts, but others continue to tacitly prioritize these experiences, often without a mutual and explicit purpose or a tangible return on the time and financial investment. In some communities, these days are early release or late start at schools, often causing a financial impact on families. Other locations use union agreements where teachers are paid to stay late into the evening. A fourth-grade team at a school in Georgia leveraged one of these scheduled conference times as an opportunity to make some important changes, resulting in more meaningful interactions with parents.

Puckett’s Mill Elementary School (PMES), in Dacula, Georgia, serves 950 students in grades Kindergarten through grade five. Parent attendance and participation in conferences had not historically been a concern for PMES. Most families were in frequent contact with teachers.

Fourth grade teachers were experiencing a change in the 2015-2016 school year: teaming. Two or three teachers shared the content areas and a larger group of students. Sometimes called departmentalization, this change allowed these teachers to focus on their strengths. However, as parent-teacher conferences drew near, Lisa Bond, the fourth-grade team lead, asked Principal Ruth Westbrooks for time with me, their external coach. The team wanted to plan how to “give parents the maximum information with multiple teachers” when the team readily admitted their individual conferences in the past often ran too long.

The team meeting started with each teacher silently writing their personal, often implicit goals for parent-teacher conferences on sticky notes.  After affixing them to the wall, teachers returned to their small chairs and repeated the experience, this time writing what goals parents might have for parent-teacher conferences.

After sticking these thoughts adjacent to the teachers’ goals, we searched for connections, each of us at the wall silently grouping sticky notes in clumps. Numerous ideas appeared on both sides of the proverbial conference table which helped as we prioritized the top three goals for the conferences.

Now that goals had been articulated, it was necessary to pose a probable elephant in the room: who is doing most of the talking in a conference. With colored pens in hand, the fourth grade teachers created individual pie charts, indicating what percentage of the time they usually talk in conferences and what percentage of the time parents usually talk.

Sharing these results was certainly eye-opening, not just the numerical spread in the answers but the level of risk these teachers took in the collaboration. The team built consensus on the ranges they felt were acceptable for each member of the conference. We agreed we needed conferences where parents talked more, and we talked a little less. After discussing their intents behind their pie charts, it was time to act on our goals: what changes would we need to make in order to make our goals and pie chart ranges come to life?

The brainstorming session resulted in excitement from the team as they envisioned a different experience for them and for the families they serve. They chose to make significant changes and their risk ended up being well worth it. After very positive conferences, the team indicated the following three changes as pivotal for their success:

“What is one thing you want to make sure we talk about today?”
As ideas were flowing from the group, someone asked, “how does everyone start your conferences?” After hearing seven slightly different ways, the smaller teaching teams put their heads together to agree on a method. After several unsuccessful minutes, I redirected back to our pie chart agreement: “what if we asked our parents to start?”

Unanimously after conferences, each teacher agreed the most important change they made was by starting with a common question, “What is one thing you want to make sure we talk about today?” Many of them felt they had asked for parent input in the past but this explicit change positioned parents as a vital partner. A few of the teachers added this question to a written newsletter prior to the conference so parents might be ready.

Not only did this subtle move send a message to parents, it helped streamline the time. By knowing what the parent was most interested in, many teachers started there, then were able to move into related issues. Several team members reported an unheard-of event: their conferences stayed on time and on schedule!

Grades, grades, grades
The teachers realized they were under a faulty assumption: we must show the gradebook to parents at each conference. When no one could actually provide evidence to verify this urban myth, the team decided to not spend valuable conference time in this way. Since the online Parent Portal included the gradebook, teachers were able to confirm through usage reports that most parents were checking grades online.

In a nod toward one of the sticky notes representing parent goals, an idea was raised to have a computer ready in case a parent would like a brief tutorial about how to check grades through the computer or a smartphone. Teachers reported a few parents availed themselves of this option.

Talking isn’t the only way
Several sticky notes from teachers revealed their desire to show parents the range of achievement in the classroom. Similarly, some of the parent goals indicated a similar sentiment: “how is my child doing compared to everyone else?”

To appease both desires, the team set up a “museum” in the hallway near their classrooms. Writing samples were posted representing various achievement levels. Following their conferences, parents could match their child’s writing level to the posted samples. Similarly, student desks were placed in the hallways with books at different reading levels.

Advice to school boards and leaders
Although this is the story of seven women at one elementary school, it has much to teach us about engaging parents through an age-old practice.

Check in. Many districts might assume teachers are clear about the goals of parent-teacher conferences. This assumption may inadvertently perpetuate negative schooling stories from some parents: teachers doing all the talking with the recipients of their wisdom feeling chided. Building a common vocabulary and set of goals around conferences will certainly provide focus.
Check for change. Perhaps parent-teacher conferences look exactly like they did before the digital age arrived. Considering the communication frequency and diversity of options (e.g., text, email, automated phone calls), it may be time to make sure the practice fits the decade.
Check for satisfaction. Rarely do schools ask families about their traditional, annual practices. We often survey about our innovative practices or future actions. This fourth-grade team received such positive comments from their changes, not only did they repeat the practice in the spring, but other grade levels at the school asked them how they could alter their practices.

Time is precious both for families and in schools. It is time for us to assure we are thoughtfully checking the box of parent-teacher conferences and have some return on the investment.

Thomas Van Soelen ( is a former associate superintendent from Georgia, now serving as the president of Van Soelen & Associates, a professional development and coaching firm.

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