Many research studies have shown the educational benefits of strong family and community involvement in schools. Short meetings between family members and classroom teachers—traditionally known as “parent-teacher conferences”—can encourage this connection between home and school. Unfortunately, cultural barriers can discourage families or other supportive adults from participating in these conferences.
In my teaching practice, I have found that a few small changes to the traditional conference structure make families feel more recognized, welcomed and valued, which in turn makes the conferences more beneficial to my students.
- Change the name. Just the name “parent-teacher conferences” alienates the segment of the student body being raised by grandparents, foster parents, aunts or older siblings. Reconceptualizing these meetings as “progress conferences” or “home-school connections” acknowledges alternative family structures and redirects the focus of the conference back to factors that support a student’s holistic progress.
- Provide support for families with small children. Baby sitters are expensive; for some families, the burden of paying a sitter keeps them from making the trip into the school. Include a line in the conference invitation letting families know the school can accommodate younger children during conferences. If the administration cannot provide supervision for younger children, each teacher can designate a “kids’ corner” in the classroom. This area should be stocked with books, construction paper, drawing materials, magazines with pictures, a computer set up with educational games (PBS Kids is a great place to start) and other materials to keep younger children occupied. Local middle or high school students might even be able to provide in-room child care.
- Have interpreters available. Families that are not English-language proficient may view conferences as intimidating and awkward. Providing an interpreter allows families to converse in their native language and focus on content instead of worrying about conveying meaning. For schools without interpreters on staff, local colleges and universities could be a resource for conference-night interpreters. Leaders in local immigrant communities could also help identify interpreters who would not pose a conflict of interest for the family. Note: It is never appropriate to ask students to translate for their parents.
- Provide a safe space for families to speak. Many of my students’ families work in one of the local polymer factories, at the power plant or in another trade-related field. I’ve heard many family members say unequivocally that their high school experience was a terrible one and that they want better for their students.
- Accommodate families that work shift schedules or multiple jobs. Instead of having conferences only during the school day, extend the schedule from the end of the school day until 7 or 8 at night. This gives parents who work first shift a chance to attend without losing pay or having to take vacation or sick time. Conducting phone conferences is another possible alternative for parents who can’t physically make it to the school due to job demands but are able to speak while they are in transit or during a break. These accommodations make it clear to families that the school understands and finds their participation so valuable that the teacher will work around their schedule.
Having younger children present may limit some conference discussion topics or prevent families from being forthcoming with vital home information. However, having contact with a family that might not come otherwise makes this trade-off worth it.
I take special steps to ensure my students’ families can speak candidly to me about the nature of schooling and its purpose. For example, I never conduct conferences from behind my desk; I always sit at a student table with families to illustrate our equality in approaching matters of their child’s education. Further, I provide examples and data from the student’s work, but I let families lead with questions and comments before diving into particulars or discussing my concerns. Also, whenever possible, I refrain from using acronyms or teacher jargon that can alienate families.
Ricket is a high school English teacher in Ohio.