Insight / Published Nov 12

One Thing That Shouldn’t Go Back to Normal: Parent-Teacher Conferences

My wife and I are religious about attending parent-teacher conferences. To us, they’re a precious opportunity to connect with our kids’ teachers, get their firsthand perspective on how things are going, and ask at least a few of the many questions we have thought about over the previous months. We try to go to them together if we can make our schedules work—and we’re grateful that our jobs are flexible enough to allow us to juggle these things and usually make it happen, a privilege many parents don’t have. My kids are in fifth and third grade now, and I don’t think we’ve missed a single one.

But here’s the thing: Valuable as they are, these conferences can also be a huge hassle. They happen after the school day ends, and the early evening slots fill up immediately—so we often have to leave work early to attend them. Inevitably, one or both of us is rushing to arrive on time. We show up like Amazing Race contestants, out of breath and half-lost in the school hallways. When we find the kids’ overheated classrooms, we shoehorn ourselves into a couple tiny chairs for our 15 or 20 minutes with the teacher. A flurry of papers later, we’re rushing back to work or to pick up the kids. It’s no wonder that about one in five parents and caregivers consistently skip these events, even in normal times.

This year, with school buildings closed by COVID, parent-teacher conferences were different. Like everything else in our lives, they took place over Zoom. Unlike most things that involve video conferences, that turned out to be a great thing.

First of all, it meant that the timing was more flexible for everyone. We ended up doing ours when we’d normally have lunch—no need to slip out of work early. Since it was online, we also didn’t have to be in the same place at the same time, and our kids’ teachers could be at home for the conversations, not waiting around school. Because the kids have been completing many of their assignments online, their teachers were able to pull examples up quickly and share them on screen, rather than shuffling through papers. When it was done, we got right back to work.

Afterward, I kept thinking about how much easier the whole arrangement was, and how there weren’t any major downsides. For parents and caregivers whose work hours or locations aren’t as flexible, the benefits seem even clearer—why ask them to take time off of work or contort their schedules just to get to school for a 15-minute conversation, when that can happen just as easily via video call?

I’m as eager as anyone to be done with COVID and get back to normal. Our kids haven’t seen the inside of their school for almost nine months. They miss their friends and teachers. They’re tired of video classes and learning on screens—and my wife and I are tired of those things too. I wouldn’t want virtual conferences to become the only option when it’s safe for everyone to get together in person again—after all, it’s the flexibility that adds value for families, and some folks may prefer to meet in person. But if schools and teachers consistently offer a FaceTime or Zoom meeting option from now on? That’s one new normal I’d be happy to accept.

“This year, with school buildings closed by COVID, parent-teacher conferences were different. Like everything else in our lives, they took place over Zoom. Unlike most things that involve video conferences, that turned out to be a great thing.”