Ask any teacher their thoughts on conferences and you’ll likely get a mixed response (even from just one individual). Conferences can be exhausting. Aside from the longer days as teachers stay after school to meet family, they can be mentally and emotionally tiring too. However, we learn so much about our students and their families, we get to celebrate successes and strengthen partnerships. Having been involved in conferences as teacher, parent and coordinator I’ve seen this from all sides. I’m making a conscious effort this year to make sure that our whole community is as well equipped as can be to make them a success.
Which type of conference is best?
I’m not sure if there is a ‘best’ as often we need balance. At AIS Kuwait we have 3-way conferences (student-guardian-teacher) twice per year and student-led conferences once (towards the end of the year). We intentionally have children at every conference. No one is more important in their learning than they are, so they should be at the centre of discussions. In the rare case, a teacher needs to say something a child can’t hear we schedule an additional meeting. This balance allows everyone to have a voice, keeps our students in the centre and encourages us to celebrate successes together which works for us.
Supporting Teachers to Prepare for Conferences
Before each conference, we dedicate a weekly meeting/PD time to preparing as a teaching team. Teachers and assistants, along with single-subject teachers, counsellors, leaders and librarians will all be on hand on the night of conferences. Whilst we want to support teacher autonomy and individuality we also need some continuity and shared understandings. We review as a team some common areas of growth and challenge to discuss. Moreover, we take the time to either role play or discuss ‘tough’ questions we might face. By practising, our teachers have shared that they feel better prepared, more confident and more relaxed during conferences we have taken time to do this for.
The list of ‘tough’ questions comes from our teachers themselves. We can calmly think through what the family member is trying to learn/understand/clarify and ways to answer this with clarity and respect. During conferences, each answer is specific to the child but practising like this helps! Teachers are (contrary to appearances) not actually superheroes. We’re human and practising for something that is this important makes sense.
If needed, we also share links with teachers with advice on how to prepare, such as this from Scholastic.
Imagine the most important people in your life sat around a table looking at you and expecting you to explain everything you’ve done in the past year. Sounds pretty intimidating, right? Some of our students will feel that anxiety and that’s not our goal. We need to make sure students know we are ‘on their side’. It should be clear that we want to help, to celebrate them and help them continue to grow. Discussing what to expect at conferences and letting students practice with each other goes a long way to alleviate their worries and will improve their conference experience too. This is also a great chance to conference with children who might not make it to the official conferences.
One area that’s not always given the same kind of time and focus is supporting families. We have many families in which the educational experience of the child is significantly different from that of their parents/other family members. This year we are sending home some guidance on what to expect and questions to ask at the conferences. To do this I put together a base template (see below) and then asked each grade level team to customise it. Some great questions added by teams were;
‘How can I support my child as they transition to middle school next year?’
‘What friendships has my child started/maintained this year that you see at school?’
As we do conferences multiple times per year it can be tempting to assume everyone knows what to do and feels comfortable and well prepared. Yet by taking the time to slow down and methodically prepare we increase the quality of our conferences. This makes us able to truly celebrate growth and the development of the children we all care so much about!
Looking for other ways to involve your community?
As a school, we do a lot to involve our community. This includes Showcasing Learning and using Seesaw to engage families. Developing a clear plan for ways to involve your school community can help in so many ways!
This article was originally published at https://journeysthroughteaching.com/2020/01/20/a-community-approach-to-conferences/