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How to Hold a Parent Teacher Conference

Through over 20 years of teaching in four different schools, I have had countless parent-teacher conferences.

Whether we're talking about the occasional conference requested by the parents (or administrator) or formal conferences where you meet with the parents of the students you teach or you meet with the parents of all of your advisees, conferences can be nerve-wracking for teachers.

When I was younger I remember feeling a lot of imposter syndrome. I was barely older than my students at the beginning of my career. Some of the parents I was talking to were the same age as my own parents. Who was I to give the parents advice?

Holding conferences has definitely gotten easier as I have gotten older. In some ways, it has gotten easier now that I have my own child, but my child is only 5-years-old so I still cannot relate to the challenges of parenting a teenager. The key to holding a successful conference is to be prepared, act confident, don't be afraid to admit to a mistake, and follow up if necessary.

Here are my top tips for how to hold a successful parent-teacher conference


Talk to the students beforehand. If you have time to do one-on-one 5-minute conversations with the students, that would be ideal. You could also do a Google Form survey. Try to do it about a week or so in advance so you have time to read the students' answers.
Some questions you can ask the students:
  • What is your favorite topic that we have studied so far?
  • What are you proudest of in class so far (think beyond grades)?
  • What do you want your parents to know with regards to this class?
  • How do you feel about your grades on your progress report?
  • What are you most proud of academically?
  • What are your greatest academic challenges?
  • How often are you seeking help outside regular class hours?
  • Do you consistently complete your homework?
  • How much time do you spend on homework?
  • How do you plan to improve for the rest of the semester?


If you have students that have IEPs or accommodations, be sure to read those before meeting with parents. Find out what you can about the student's home life. Are the parents divorced? Are there step-parents in the family? Stepsiblings living in the same home? Grandparents living in the same home?
If you're holding conferences for your advisees, and your school requires that teachers write comments for each student, be sure to read those ahead of time.

Have a plan for topics of discussion.

If the student is not doing well, ask the student during the conference how they will improve. Be prepared to offer suggestions.

If the student is doing well, ask the student what is contributing to their success. Ask if they challenge themselves or offer suggestions for the student to challenge themselves. Are there academic teams at the school the student could join?

If behavior is a problem for the student, try to speak in "I" statements so as not to sound accusatory. "I don't like it when you talk while I am talking. I feel that I am often reminding you to be quiet." 

Remember to always describe the behavior and not the student themselves. For example, instead of saying the student is lazy you could be specific and say, "Tim does not do his homework. Tim comes to class unprepared and has to borrow a pencil/paper/calculator. Tim slouches in his seat and it makes me think that he doesn't want to be there."

You can even try the sandwich rule: sandwich a negative statement between two positive statements. For example, "I like how John has a lot of energy and enthusiasm when he comes to class. However, I feel that I am constantly reminding him to be quiet while I am teaching a new concept or giving instructions. John is bright and has a lot of potential if we can find a way to redirect his energy."

Remember not to throw your colleagues under the bus. If the parent or student starts to talk negatively about a colleague, interrupt them to remind them that you work with the person being discussed and it's inappropriate for them to say negative or hateful things about them. 

Remind the student and parent that students are not always going to like their teachers, just like adults don't always like their bosses. Learning to tolerate a teacher that you don't like is a life skill. It's also a good idea to have the student try to think of what the situation could be like from the teacher's point of view. 

Remind the student that if they have an issue with a specific teacher, the first place to go is to the teacher herself to discuss it. If the student feels like that conversation doesn't accomplish anything, then the parent and student should meet with that teacher together.


This tip is one of the most important. Remember that any attacks on you personally are usually not about you. Parents get frustrated. Teenagers are often difficult for parents to manage and often teachers get the brunt of the anger. 

Parents often just want someone to listen. Because tone cannot be conveyed in an email, it's often better to handle a frustrated parent either on the phone or in person. 

Parents want to know that you care about their child and want to help them be successful. Saying things like, "I understand" or "I hear you" followed by repeating back what they say shows the parent that you are listening and not just waiting for them to stop talking so that you can talk. Have a piece of paper handy so you can write down a word or two to help you remember what you want to say.

EXTRA TIP: If you're doing a phone call and are worried about the phone call taking too long, say something along the lines of "I have a class in 20 minutes, but I wanted to take a moment to give you a call." Keep an eye on the clock and after 20 minutes end the call.

Have your gradebook and documents handy

If you have behavior or academic issues with a student, keep detailed records. 

Print out the student's grade details. If you keep your students' tests, have those available. Look again at the student's assessments and determine if you can summarize the errors (conceptual? careless? computation? precision?). Ideally, you could make notes on those errors while you're grading and put those notes in the gradebook - but that can be very time-consuming.

If you have concerns about the number of times a student asks to go to the bathroom or shouts out in class, use rubber bands on your wrist (move a rubber band from one wrist to the other when the offending behavior happens). At the end of class, make a note of how many rubber bands you moved and the date.

You could even ask a colleague to observe your class and tally the number of times the student says or does something inappropriately.

Take notes and follow up.

If you said that you needed to get more information from someone in order to answer their question, then write it down and do it.  Try to follow up with the family within 24 to 48 hours.

Only send emails to parents on weekdays.  In general, don't reply to emails on weekends and late at night - you don't want to send the message that you (or any teacher for that matter) are available for communication after hours. I love Gmail's ability to "send later" for this reason: I can write an email on a Sunday but schedule it to go out on Monday morning.

If a parent requests that you email them once a week with an update, instead say that you will be happy to respond to a weekly email from them. You have a lot of students to keep up with. I find that when I do this, parents are quick to agree, but the weekly email only lasts for about 1 week.

Ask someone to sit in on the meeting

If you are nervous about the conversation (e.g. the emails from the parents have been aggressive) don't be shy about asking the head of your department or an administrator to sit in the meeting with you.

Be prepared for the parents to ask for your advice. 

Be prepared to answer the question, "what is your plan for helping my child improve?"

Once I had a parent talk about his child as though he was a product that wasn't selling well and asked me for my plan of action to improve it. It was such a strange question that all I could think was how unusual of a question it was and I stumbled over the answer. Later, I couldn't even remember what I said.

I think if I were asked that question today I would say something along the lines of, "the person who is in charge of improving is the student. I am available to help and answer questions, but I cannot force your child to *ask* for help. I can provide extra practice. I can sit with him during office hours to see if can determine where there is confusion or misunderstanding. I can partner your child with another student in the class to see if the other student can explain things in a way that makes better sense to your child."

What if you cannot think of advice?

It is difficult when, in your opinion, the student is doing all she can do (doing all the homework, coming in for help, studying for assessments) and she still is not getting perfect scores on assessments. I like to probe deeper into the student's studying practices.  This can often lead to some insight and lead you to give some helpful advice. Some of the things I ask or say are: 
  • How do you study? Are there distractions? Phone? Music? Listen to music with no words. 
  • Take lots of breaks when you study; don't cram. Your brain remembers what you studied at the beginning and at the end, but not in the middle.
  • Do you look over your notes while studying for a test? Read through any theorems or definitions.
  • Do you make notecards? Physical notecards are better than digital notecards (like
  • Is the student using photomath or another online calculator to assist in their understanding or just to get the right answer?
  • Put yourself in a test-like situation. Put away all distractions. Turn off the music. Work on a set of problems. Put away the answer key. Set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes and work on those problems. Then check your answers after the timer goes off.
  • When you finished the last test did you walk away feeling really good about it or did you know that you didn't do well? 
  • Do you notice when the other students are getting up to turn in their tests? Does that bother you? 
  • Do you feel rushed? If you had more time would you do better? 
  • Are there signs that you may need to refer the family to a learning support specialist or school psychologist (hopefully you have one at your school)? One thing we keep hearing with today's adolescents is that with the use of social media comes more anxiety.  Be careful with these conversations. If you are not a trained psychologist, you cannot diagnose a student with learning or behavior disorders. You can say things like, “I have had other students with a similar issue and they spent time with a learning support specialist. I can give you the name of someone to talk to.”

Be prepared to defend your teaching practices. 

Parents often want to know how you grade homework? Why do you do it that way? 
Do you allow test corrections or retests? Why or why not? 
If the class average on a test was very low, how do you handle that?


The majority of my conferences have been easy and the parents are pleasant to talk to.  I said it above, but it's so important that I will say it again: parents want to know that you care about their child and want to help them be successful. If you can demonstrate that - or even use those exact words, your conferences will be a success. Good luck!

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