Mastering Parent Teacher Conferences & Open Houses: Tips for Teachers on Dealing with Parents & Students

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Open House Tips

The original title for this article was “Open House Tips,” and although this article includes tips for open house, it is much more than that.

I recall my first open house. Young and foolish, I looked forward to the event with enthusiasm, an opportunity to interact with adults and discuss strategies for improving student achievement. Instead, irrational parents, convinced I was on a personal mission to ruin their child’s life, spent the evening finding fault with my professional competence.

Shellshocked, I vowed the open house ambush would never happen again. Instead of interacting with parents at subsequent open houses, I constructed a powerpoint that lasted the entire ten minute open house session, fielded no questions, gave thanks that open house was adjourned for another year, and began planning my Christmas vacation to the Dominican Republic.

My disdain for open house carried over to parent teacher conferences, phone calls, and e-mail messages.

Over time, however, my attitude changed. Most parents with whom I speak are cordial, respectful, and have their child’s best interest at heart.

Here’s how to deal with the rest.

How to Win Friends and Influence Parents

With thanks to Dale Carnegie, here are 4 ways to win friends and influence parents.

Let’s begin with the fundamental techniques of handling parents:

1. Don’t Criticize or Condemn: No parent wants to hear how awful his or her child is. Avoid criticizing the student. Simply state relevant facts: “Bob’s grade is a 53% or Susan’s missing two assignments” instead of “You’re child is a waste of ink in my gradebook.”

2. Don’t Complain: Don’t complain about having to show up at open house or a parent-teacher conference. Chances are the parent made greater sacrifices than you to be there. Even if you have to fake it, be positive.

3. Give Honest and Sincere Praise: Before communicating with the parent, think of a few positive things to say. I’ve had students straighten up, not because the parent made them, but because they heard me praise them during a conference.

4. Arouse in the Parent and Student an Eager Want: What is going to motivate that parent to do what you want them to do? Show them the benefits of what you are trying to do. Show them the benefits of a particular policy or decision they may not like.

The Importance of Postive Parent-Teacher Relationships

The following tale illustrates the importance of having a positive parent teacher relationship:

I felt bad. Mr. Margersol’s down the hall worked harder than anyone at the school. Her students left her class prepared for college and life more than other students in the school. I, on the other hand, was new. I hadn’t been working particularly hard that year, spending as much time dreaming of my golf vacation in British Columbia than grading papers.

Despite my obvious deficiencies (deficiencies which I have since eliminated with the help of Mrs. Margersol) and Mrs. Margersol’s brilliance in the classroom, she had trouble with parents whereas I had positive parent teacher relationships.

Perplexed, I asked a parent, who was also a friend of mine, why parents gave Mrs. Margersol such a hard time. She was the best teacher in the school and her students achieved more than any in the district.

His response: we just don’t like her.

6 Ways to Make Parents Like You

1. Become genuinely interested in them and in their children: Ask students who their favorite teachers are and they’ll respond with the one’s who care about them. Parenting is a difficult task. Parents appreciate any help they can get. Show parents you are genuinely interested in the future success of their student. If you’re not truly interested then fake it until you are.

2. Smile: You’ll feel better. They’ll feel better. Fake it if you have to.

3. Learn names and use them: Remembering names shows the name bearer they’re important. Before going to a parent-teacher conference, learn the names of the parents. Before open house, find out which students are attending and make an extra effort to remember their names.

4. Encourage parents to talk about themselves and their children: They really don’t care about your educational philosophy. Engage parents by listening and asking them questions. The questions don’t necessarily have to be about their student, but it’s an obvious beginning point.

5. Talk in terms of the other person’s interest: When addressing a classroom policy, decision or assignment, talk about it as it applies to them or the student. For example, instead of saying, “that’s just too much work to grade,” try, “these kids have been working hard and I think they need a break.” Instead of saying, “tardies bug the heck out of me,” try “I’m just trying to prepare tomorrow’s leaders for success and part of being successful is being on time.”

6. Make the parent feel important: There is no more important role in life than being a parent. Respect that importance.

Dealing with an Angry Parent

Teachers communicating with parents conjures up various images. For some, it produces memories of teamwork and satisfaction. For most, however, it dredges up memories of teachers dealing with parent anger, parents dealing with teacher anger, irrational badgering, and chest pressure.

My second year teaching provided one such moment:

About to exit my room for a four day weekend, my joy was interrupted by an irrational troglodyte who I knew as Tim’s Mom. “How come my Timmy has a D?” she asked, “Just two weeks ago he had a B. I need answers and I need them now. Why are you picking on my Timmy?”

Instead of following my gut instinct of knocking the papers out of her hand and running, I instead calmly explained that precious Timmy did not turn in a 200-point project. A project on which he was given time every day to work on in class that week. I remarked that I too was frustrated with Timmy’s decision not to do his work.

As she transferred her anger from me to Timmy, I inwardly gloated, accepted her apology and left for my golf vacation in South Carolina realizing I had mastered one of many tips for teacher parent conferences.

Tips for Parent Teacher Conferences

You Can’t Win an Argument

Here’s the best advice I’ve ever heard for dealing with confrontation: Dale Carnegie advises, “there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument–and that is to avoid it.” He adds, “If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory.”

Here are some suggestions for implementing this sage counsel:

  • Welcome the disagreement - The disagreement either gives you an opportunity to advocate your position or an opportunity to be corrected before you make a serious mistake.
  • Distrust your first distinctive impression - Act out of calmness, not out of anger. This is the greatest of tips for teacher parent-conferences and can be applied to such things as e-mail, text messaging, and twittering.
  • Control your temper - There’s no sense having two out of control people.
  • Listen first - Don’t debate, defend, or resist. Let the parent finish.
  • Look for areas of agreement - Build on common ground. Most often the common ground is you both want the student to get a quality education. Start there.
  • Be honest - If you made a mistake, apologize and move forward. This can be hard, especially when you’re being shouted down in front of your peers.
  • Thank the parent for her concern - A concerned parent is an involved parent. That’s good.
  • Remember who the ultimate authority is for each child - Government run schools too often usurp the authority of the parent. Always remember it is the parent’s choice whether or not a particular book is read or a subject is taught. Only when your decision becomes unfair to other students should the parent’s opinion be countered.

Postpone Action

Give both sides time to think about the issues. It is the cornerstone of success for dealing with angry people.

Ask yourself some tough questions and act accordingly:

  • Could the parent be right?
  • Could the parent be partly right?
  • Is there truth or merit in the parent’s position or argument?
  • Is my reaction one that will relieve the problem or just my frustration?
  • Will my reaction drive the parent or student further away or will it bring us closer together?
  • Will my reaction elevate the estimation that good people have of me?
  • What price will I pay for winning the discussion?
  • Will the disagreement blow over?
  • Is the situation an opportunity for me?

How to Communicate with Parents

The influence of parents and schools is a topic about which teachers must be aware.

Here are the Top 10 parent-teacher communication ideas for influencing parents to your way of thinking.

1. Show respect for parents' opinions - They’re the parents. They’re entitled to an opinion about their children’s education. Respect it even if you disagree with it.

2. If you are wrong, admit it - Admitting you’re wrong is a sign of strength. It sets a good example for your students as well.

3. Begin in a friendly way - Begin every parent contact with something positive. This establishes the proper mood.

4. Get the parent to say “Yes” immediately - This involves questions that can only elicit a positive response. For example, “You really want Billy to do well in school this year?”

5. Let the parent do most of the talking - Don’t preach. Listen. Sometimes the parent is just worried and needs to know someone is there to help. Often the parent solves the problem without you having to say much of anything.

6. Let the parent feel the Idea was hers - If it’s your idea it could be wrong. If it’s their idea, it’s right. This skill involves asking questions and guiding the parent to the solution, followed by praise.

7. Try honestly to see things from the parents' point of view - The parent may have a point you have yet to consider. Some of my greatest breakthroughs have come from parent suggestions.

8. Be sympathetic with the parents' ideas and desires - Both teachers and parents have the same goal. Listen to parent concerns and put yourself in their position.

9. Appeal to nobler motives - Look for the best in students and parents. Phrases such as “I know your son is smarter than his grade shows,” or “I think we can all do better” breaks down barriers and walls.

10. Dramatize your ideas - Give a vivid description of the benefits of your idea. Don’t tell. Show.

I hope this humorous advice for dealing with teachers helps next time you are in a confrontational situation. All jokes aside, all teachers will at one point have a hard time dealing with a parent no matter how good a teacher they are. Stay calm and do not consider it an attack against you personally (unless you really are a terrible teacher). Most often these disagreements are born out of simple misunderstanding.

Of course, as we all know, teachers spend most of their time dealing with students, not with parents. There are ways you can improve your skills dealing with students as well.

The Role of a Teacher as a Leader

Teaching high schools appeals to many teachers because it offers the opportunity to build academic programs, clubs, and athletic teams. This task becomes easier if the teacher can successfully lead students, parents, and administrators. These suggestions will help you become the dynamic leader today’s schools need

Err on the Side of Praise

Begin with Praise and Honest Appreciation – When addressing mistakes made by others, begin with something positive. When I coached basketball we lost an important game on account of several missed free throws. My natural reaction was to yell at my team. Instead, I praised them for being aggressive and getting to the free throw line consistently. We then practiced free throws for the next hour. My players, already upset by the loss, responded well to praise.

Call Attention to People’s Mistakes Indirectly – Nobody likes to be called out. Calling attention to one’s mistakes indirectly gives them a chance to save face without letting them break the rules. At my school, dress code prohibits the wearing of hats. I became fanatical in my approach to enforcement and created a lot of resentment. One day, a student came by wearing a hat, but instead of shouting at him to remove the hat, I asked, “How are all the girls going to admire your long hair with that thing covering it up?” The student laughed, removed the hat, and never wore it again.

Talk About Your Own Mistakes Before Criticizing Others – The season began with three straight losses and team confidence lagged. My players were playing far below their capabilities. After a particularly tough loss, players, parents, and even some coaches began pointing fingers at each other. At practice the next day, I unloaded on the person most responsible. I pointed out every mistake I had made that season, and those very players who were blaming me for the losses, were coming to my defense and admitting their own mistakes. Instead of pointing fingers, we identified our individual weaknesses, improved them, and had a successful season.

Ask Questions Instead of Giving Direct Orders – Nobody likes to be bossed around. If you want people to follow you, ask questions. My former principal suggested a great way to get students to be more productive in class. When a student is not on task, ask him a series of questions: “What are you doing?” “What are you supposed to be doing?” “What are you going to do about it?”

Increase Student Motivation

Remember your first year teaching when you wanted to ram a pencil through that kid’s eye who sat three rows back? Every morning you prayed he would get sick, wreck his car, or die a horrible death, but it never happened. Then one day you lost it and yelled at the entire class Although they shut up for a couple minutes, they renewed their assault on your sanity the very next day.

Eventually we all learn how to manage classroom behavior without making idle threats and uttering imprecations under our breath. We find that love mixed with discipline works better than throwing a book against the wall. We discover clear expectations more effective than handing out eight weeks of detention. We stop increasing student detentions and start increasing student motivation.

In short, we evolve from teachers to leaders.

Don’t Humiliate; Elevate

Increasing student motivation begins with positive communication.

Let the Student Save Face – The worst thing a coach, teacher, administrator or advisor can do is humiliate a student. As a coach, whenever I removed a player from the starting lineup, I addressed the importance of coming off the bench and providing a spark. If a student answers a question incorrectly, I simply thank him for the answer and remark that the answer is not exactly what I was looking for. If I discipline a student in front of the class (something I try to avoid), I soon follow it up with a remark that demonstrates I’m condemning the action and not the actor. For example, “Just because you’re my favorite student doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow the rules.”

Praise the Slightest Improvement – Never forget that learning is a process. Look for excuses to give praise instead of criticism. Handing back assignments provides an excellent opportunity to praise a student. Phrases such as, “I loved your answer to number 2,” or “Hey, good job on these problems” make a huge difference. For a coach, cheering a good play in practice or thanking a player who works extra hard produces more results than shouting criticisms.

Give the Student a Fine Reputation to Live up to – Once again, remain positive even when the urge to condemn is present. The simple phrase, “we can do better than this, can’t we?” motivates students and players. When addressing individuals, bring up a time he or she excelled and mention how you want to see that again. My favorite is to mention that someone else told me how good you were at _______.

Make the Fault Seem Easy to Correct – Downplay the difficulty of overcoming faults. Telling a student he or she is dumb or an athlete that he or she is a klutz and you demotivate. I had a player who kept missing layups at key moments of basketball games. His teammates referred to him as a choker. I called him in and nonchalantly alluded to the fact that he had a natural ability to get to the basket at crucial moments and that those shots would start falling, and they did.

Effective Classroom Management Styles

Using these principles without considering the best interest of the student is manipulation. When the teacher utilizes them to provide the best possible learning environment for all students, he or she is a leader.

  • Be sincere: Don’t promise things you cannot do nor intend to do.

  • Know exactly what it is you want the other person to do: Don’t go into a parent-teacher conference, a phone call home, or a student meeting without a clearly defined goal of what it is you want.

  • Be empathetic: Try to understand what it is the other person wants and, more importantly, why he or she wants it. In addition, try to understand why a student is demonstrating a particular behavior. For example, it’s really tough sitting in a tiny chair for six hours.

  • Show the parent the benefits of your idea: Nobody cares about how busy you are, how many papers you have to grade, or how underpaid you are. Don’t tell them. Tell them benefits. I had a parent complaining about how long it took me to grade an essay. Instead of talking about all the student essays I had to grade, I said, “in order to provide the most accurate assessment and constructive feedback as possible, I need to spend more time than most do on this particular essay. If it makes you feel better, I’ll grade Bob’s essay next and I’ll grade it thoroughly. Although it took longer than usual, Bob will benefit from my instruction.”

  • Make sure what you say emphasizes the benefits derived: Instead of saying, “Will you finish that assignment? Grades are due in an hour and I’d like to go home,” you could say, “You’re gonna need to turn that in really soon if you want credit for it. If you have it done within 15 minutes I can grade it right away and submit it for this grading period.”

I remember my second year teaching. I had it all figured out until several parents called and complained about some of my “effective” classroom management strategies. They felt public flogging for chewing gum in class was excessive. I learned that to be trully effective I had to factor parents as well as students and administrators into account. Many classroom management articles fail to consider this important aspect. Following these simple guidelines will get parents and students on your side.