Parent-teacher conferences are supposed to be an opportunity for parents and teachers to build their relationship, to spend time sharing information and ensuring that everyone’s on the same page aboutand how to support their success. But what happens when these opportunities turn out to be just the opposite; not so much a moment of meaningful engagement for parents as a painful reminder of how far apart schools are from them?
Consider the experience of Jasmin,* one of the parents I support as a Navigator in New Orleans. When report card conference day arrived, Jasmin was excited to learn how her three girls were doing in their classes, but she knew it would be a challenge. Why? Because report card conferences all happen on the same day in Jefferson Parish, where Jasmin lives. Jasmin’s daughters attend three different schools – one elementary, one middle, and one high school. To participate fully, she would need to find a way to see 13 teachers across three different locations in one evening.
Jasmin was determined but realistic. She made plans to attend conferences by cutting her work day short. She also decided to skip meetings for her high school daughter, who is performing very well. But even with that compromise, she had two schools to visit. She assumed that a two-hour window in the early evening would present enough time for 10 minute meetings with teachers.
She arrived at her 4th grade daughter’s school promptly at 5:00. Her daughter has three teachers: One math teacher, one reading teacher and a science and social studies teacher. As she walked down the hallway, Jasmin noticed it was packed with parents. There was a 10 to 20 minute wait before even being able to speak to a single teacher.
After patiently waiting for her turn, she entered each classroom and was immediately directed to sign in on the attendance sheet – a step that appeared to be as important as the conversation itself. The conferences felt rushed and superficial. Teachers barely asked Jasmin what she wanted to discuss. Instead, they jumped into a brief summary, from their own point of view, and hurried her out the door. She ended up skipping the last teacher in order to walk to the middle school, but by the time she got there she only had 45 minutes left to see seven more teachers, each of whom already had lines of parents waiting their turn.
Time for a New Approach
Jasmin’s experience with report card conferences is a perfect example of how school systems often operate in ways that work for schools but not for families. In this case, hosting all parent-teacher conferences on one day probably makes a lot of sense for schools; it’s predictable for teachers and school staff and ensures that everything gets done at once. It might even seem like a benefit to parents – only one date to worry about.
In reality, though, it’s a disaster for moms like Jasmin: A stressful whirlwind tour of school hallways punctuated by short, not-so-helpful conversations with tired and overwhelmed teachers. In the end, she comes away with an incomplete picture of how her daughters are doing and the sense that a lot of her time has been wasted. How much more does she know about her girls’ performance or how she can help at home? Not much.
Schools need to be more considerate and creative about how they engage families. What if Jasmin could meet with teachers virtually, over a service like Skype or Google Hangout, rather than come to school in person? What if Jefferson Parish scheduled report card conferences at different schools over the course of a few weeks rather than a single night? What if they took place on weekends as well as workdays? There are plenty of “what ifs” someone could have asked to make this day better for families. What if next time around, they tried some of them?
* Not her real name