By Jeremy Monk
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017
Although parent-teacher conferences may be enjoyed most by students, who often get an extra day off of school, these discussions between parents and teachers are a crucial opportunity to improve a child’s achievement and happiness, inside and outside the classroom. There is an abundance of research concerning the importance of parental involvement in children’s education, at both primary and secondary levels. While not all parents have the ability or desire to join more formal school organizations, such as a parent-teacher or home and school associations, parental engagement allows for greater understanding of expectations, challenges and ways to improve the school experience.
Historically, parent-teacher conferences have been the main forum for communication between teachers and parents. These conferences are crucial for strong relationships between the two parties who are chiefly concerned with a child’s academic and personal development. For parents, these conversations can provide greater details about challenges occurring in the classroom and will allow them to understand how they may be able to address these issues outside of school. In addition, the majority of teachers believe conferences can help them better understand their students’ needs and home environments, and how this translates into the classroom. Ultimately, these important interactions give teachers an opportunity to create the best environments and use the most effective strategies in their teaching, while providing parents with information on how to support their children academically at home. Although parent-teacher conferences may be only one way in which parents and teachers communicate, they are often a good starting point and provide an initial encounter in which parents can get engaged.
While the importance of parental involvement and a teacher’s comprehension of a child’s home life cannot be understated, there has been a recent trend of removing parent-teacher conferences from school calendars, especially in low-income districts. A recent Chalkbeat article examined how one school district in Colorado had completely gotten rid of parent-teacher conferences. Anecdotal evidence reported by the school district argues that many parents would not, or could not, attend the designated parent-teacher conference days. In an attempt to keep parents informed about their child, this school district, like many others, has developed an online portal for parents as an alternative. While these websites provide parents with information on their child’s grades and attendance record, they offer little in terms of teacher comments or opportunity for discussion.
As some schools leave parent-teacher conferences behind in favour of online student tracking systems, two problems have been pushed to the forefront. First, the majority of teachers believe that getting rid of parent-teacher conferences will add to their workload. Since there will no longer be a formal time and place for discussion during the school year, teachers will ultimately have to designate some of their own time to speak with parents, as they find this communication beneficial for themselves and their students.
Second, while there may be some issues with parental attendance at conferences, especially at the secondary school level, online information may not bridge the gap. According to Steven Sheldon, professor of Education at Johns Hopkins University and researcher at the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships, parents who use these portals are often from more affluent families, speak English, and understand grading criteria for their children. While these portals may be promoted as a connection between parents and teachers, research so far demonstrates that both parents and teachers believe they need more personal ways to connect and work together to support students.
While instruction and learning may appear to take place within the confines of the classroom, the boundary between home and school in terms of learning is much more fluid. Therefore, a relationship between parents and teachers, in which both actors utilize the knowledge of the other and take into account the home and classroom situation, can only be beneficial to students. If parents are isolated from their child’s school experience, they will be less likely to actively engage their child on their academics at home.
While parent-teacher conferences are not the only forum for parents to get involved, and for teachers to get a greater insight into their students’ home lives, these interactions seem to be an important first step. After all, the relationships built between teachers and parents, and the flow of information back and forth, will ultimately have the greatest positive impact on children.