Sunday, November 4, 2012

It's Show Time

It’s show time, and there’s something for everyone – laughter, tears, and moments of quiet revelation. Prime seating goes fast, so book your seats now for Parent-Teacher Conferences, Fall 2012.

I don’t know about other teachers, but I begin to shake with anxiety somewhere around midterms in anticipation of opening night. Don’t misunderstand; most of the time, I adore parent-teacher conferences. They can be a wonderful opportunity to check in with my students’ parents, fill them in on what’s been going on in school, build alliances, and connect over their children’s successes. Those conferences are a blast. The catch is that every once in a while, the audience can turn hostile, and even the most experienced teachers can lose control of the room. 

But this season, I’m ready, prepared with a new set of rules. I’m heading into this spring’s conferences armed with Tina Fey’s autobiography, Bossypants. In it, she describes improv as a discipline, an art form that requires participants roll with the punches and keep the dialogue going no matter what. This year, Tina Fey’s rules of improvisational theater will serve as my practical and useful guide to to successful parent-teacher conferences.

1. Start with “yes.” When you say “no,” the interaction comes to a screeching halt. Start with “yes,” and see where it takes you.

Parents want to feel heard. In the end, that’s what conferences are for. If Mom is upset with Jane’s low grade in English, and truly believes that her daughter is simply incapable of learning the  nitpicky rules of comma usage, (adding “…who really studies grammar anymore?”) it is vital that I reply, “Yes, I have noticed Jane has difficulty with certain aspects of grammar.” “Yes” means Mom has been heard. “Yes” allows Mom to feel supported. The word “yes” soothes, promotes further conversation, and validates parental concerns. Conversely, “no” shuts down the action in a hurry. “No” implies that I don’t care, I don’t intend to hear Jane’s mother’s concerns. “No” will end the scene, and I will have lost my audience before the show has a chance to get started.

2. Say yes, and…

I must say “yes,” and then add something to the conversation. “Yes” is the opener, and once the dialogue has started, I can take advantage of the good feelings it engenders and move towards some mutually beneficial solution. “Yes, I see why you would be angry with Dick’s failing grade on this exam. Let me explain what I believe went wrong.”  Or “yes, it must be upsetting for Tom that I require him to participate in class discussion. Let me explain why I believe class participation is important.” If I hear parents, they might – just might – hear me in return.

3. Make statements, don’t respond with questions.

Parents want to feel as if teachers can offer solutions to the problems their children encounter at school, and if all we have to offer is more questions, they may assume no one has any answers. Conferences can go down the creek without a paddle very quickly when faced with too much uncertainty. While it is absolutely appropriate to ask parents for helpful suggestions and guidance regarding their children, statements of fact soothe the savage parent.

4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities.

Students may stumble, fail to live up to expectations, undermine even their own best efforts, but the wonderful part about the end of one semester is that it is always the beginning of another. Parents don’t always believe me, but even the most catastrophic disasters can lead to epiphany. A bad grade or disciplinary action is sometimes the impetus for change, and teachers can help everyone see the opportunities that lie just beyond the shadow cast by that big, fat, F. Some of my most well-worn success stories involve students who fell down and learned how to pick themselves back up as a result. Mistakes are great. Mistakes are gifts. Mistakes are where learning happens.

Almost anything can happen before the curtain closes on parent-teacher conference week. No matter how successful the show’s run, no matter how great the reviews, conferences are exhausting for everyone involved. This season, however, I am ready. I will remember to say yes. I will offer parents my most supportive statements and solutions. And, in the end, I will find a way to ensure my students don’t miss any opportunities.


  1. You go, girl! I look forward to parent teacher conferences, because it's the one time I can talk to the teacher without feeling like I'm taking up time that she ought to be using for something else.

  2. I think this is really good advice for open, non-combative communication in general, and I will take it and apply it to my new role as Chair for our school's parent council. Thank you, and good luck!

  3. Great advice - it's all about being positive and making sure that the lines of communication stay open, after all, how can we help our students if we can't communicate with his/her parent(s)? I always like to start with something complimentary - a word about how well the student cooperates, or reads aloud, or a parent and a teacher, I find that this settles things down, so that the discussion gets off to a productive start.