It’s November, which for many of us, indicates that it is time for Parent Teacher Conferences.  Early in my career I dreaded parent teacher conferences. I collected student work samples, cleaned my classroom, changed my bulletin boards, and provided a multitude of resources (color coded and on cardstock of course) outside my classroom for parents to take and peruse while they waited for their conference to start.  From the outside looking in, I had it all together, I was calm and collected but deep down I was sick to my stomach wanting the next day and a half to be over!

In the district I started my career in we would send first quarter report cards home on a Friday and then the following week we would have conferences.  Due to the timing, and honestly my lack of ongoing 1:1 communication with my students’ families, my conferences usually revolved around the report card and progress made so far in the year.  As any reflective educator does, by my second year I started asking myself why I continued to run my conferences the same way if I dreaded them year to year?? After collaborating with my mentor and colleagues, holding parent roundtables, doing research and a lot of reflection,I moved to twice a year student-led conferences.

I was hesitant to move to this format as I feared it would prevent parents telling me something I should know because their child was there, or worse, make me feel that I couldn’t share information that I needed to so that I could protect my students feelings and opinion of me.  To address this concern I started to change the way and frequency that I communicated with families 1:1. Before changing my practice I would only see and talk to families 1:1 at conferences unless there was a concern. So, instead of waiting for November to come around I called every parent the first week of school to introduce myself, talk about their student adjusting to my classroom, listen to their concerns, praises, etc.  Then I didn’t wait until conferences to talk to them 1:1 again, but rather I called one family a day to update them on their child’s progress and answer any questions they might have, etc.. I would leave messages or have a quick 10 minute conversation, it didn’t take long at all but the dialogue was so meaningful that I quickly established relationships with my families that still continue today. A call a day is how simple it was and in a month I had connected with every family at least once.  This simple change in practice allowed me the freedom to host student-led conferences without feeling the conversation had to be stifled or monitored. Now that I had relationships with my families and had ongoing dialogue about their child’s progress it put a lot less pressure on parent teacher conference for everyone!

Moving to student-led conferences changed my world, I went from dreading the day and half experience to welcoming it with open arms and even being excited about the opportunity to sit down with my students and families.  Here are a few tips (my 3 Ps) so that you can learn from my experience and move to a more impactful conference experience for all stakeholders:

  • Provide Time – The last thing you want is for your students to feel rushed “presenting” to their families.  I suggest hosting student-led conferences in the fall and spring. Each conference should be between 15-20 min.  You will plan and have more work to share than time allots but because this is a student-led conference the dialogue doesn’t stop at the end of the conference, families can go home and continue to talk with their child about their learning and portfolio.
  • Prepare – Have students create binders, reflection sheets, portfolios, etc..  Student choice is key here – if you have them put in artifacts they don’t like or aren’t passionate about they won’t speak to them at the conference.  Set loose guidelines about what must be included such as, at least one artifact per subject as well as a reflection sheet about each piece.
  • Presentation – Work with students on their speaking and listening skills.  Spend time teaching students how to have conversations so that the conference isn’t just a showcase of their work but rather the student explaining what they learned and how they learned, why they picked that piece, etc..

If I haven’t sold you on student-led conferences by this point, check out this video from Edutopia to hear about the empowerment and ownership that student-led conferences provide:

Please start reviewing your conference/communication practices so that we can empower our students and families to be an active partner in our goals to help their student succeed.


Katie Algrim – Director of Innovative Professional Learning

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