Is it time to close the classroom door on parent-teacher meetings?
It is Friday lunchtime and the teachers’ lounge in a large suburban school has come to life with more chattering than a parliament of magpies.
The teachers are not engrossed in discussions about their plans for the weekend or sharing their latest ideas about student management; and they are not complaining about an unreasonable request from the principal.
Instead, the conversation is dominated by the trials and tribulations of the week-long bender of parent-teacher meetings.
Many parents would be surprised if they were privy to teachers’ stories about these quick-hit meetings, possibly even shocked.
Teachers share tales of parents who seemed surprised by what they heard about their child, of guardians intimidating or threatening them and, of course, of parents who failed to show up.
They tell stories about parents who pushed back on anything resembling a criticism of their child; including the parent who accused the teacher of being a liar after depositing a line-up of Cs in the child’s report card, and another who, following a heated discussion, asked to be put on the school’s ‘do not contact’ list.
The reality is the parent-teacher meeting, notwithstanding its long tradition, can be a trying and emotionally wrought encounter for teachers.
To be fair, those interviews are often not much easier for parents, particularly when they feel the teacher does not know their child well enough to pass judgment.
And of course no parents like to hear that their child is less than perfect.
With all the angst these get-togethers often create, some believe it might be time to close the classroom door on this age-old convention.
Critics of the parent-teacher meeting claim that, thanks to apps, email, and websites with grades, parents no longer require scheduled meetings to find out how their child is doing.
Besides, they argue that only the ‘good’ children’s parents turn up to these meetings, while those who need to be there are often no-shows.
Other faultfinders point to the fact that parent-teacher conferences are often so rushed that the next set of parents, waiting nervously outside the door, occasionally peers in to give unsubtle wind-up signals.
Most school leaders will tell you that meetings with parents will remain in place for some time to come, though they highlight these tête-à-têtes are only one important part of a school’s strategy to communicate with parents.
School leaders maintain that, even if a young child or adolescent is performing well, a parent-teacher interview provides an opportunity to discover ways in which a student’s performance can be taken to the next level.
These meetings can help the teacher understand more about a student, and parents can learn how they can help a child with their schooling.
School leaders will point to research that shows an important factor in students doing well at school is parental involvement, which makes the parent-teacher meeting more critical than ever.
Fortunately, parent-teacher meetings are undergoing a makeover.
Some schools are extending these sessions to make them parent-teacher-student meetings.
Under this arrangement, students attend for part, or all, of the meeting to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to establishing behavioural or academic goals.
Other schools are extending the formats to include: a regular and advertised weekly period when parents can make appointments with teachers; windows during regular office hours during which parents can drop by, unannounced, for a quick chat; scheduled regular meetings between a parent and an individual teacher; and even a team of teachers meeting with one parent and their child.
These options go well beyond the standard once- or twice yearly institutionalised and formal parent-teacher conference format we are all familiar with.
Some schools are providing soft lighting – and even mood lighting – to keep parents and teachers calm, while others are arranging for meetings to take place off-site in a bid to provide a neutral ground for both parties.
There are also school leaders who seek input from parents on how they would like to see parent-teacher meetings changed, and others who have embraced technology and allowed parent-teacher conferences to take place via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Teams and Webex.
At the end of the school day, we should never view parent-teacher meetings as the single way in which we support young children and adolescents in their schooling.
Rather, these sessions provide a simple and important face-to-face component in an ongoing conversation that also takes place via letter, email and phone throughout a child’s schooling.
We should also remember that, with advance notice, most schools accommodate face-to-face meetings at any time of the year.
And remember, the teacher sitting opposite you in a parent-teacher confab is most likely just as nervous as you; so do your bit to help put these special people in your child’s life at ease.
Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA