Parent-teacher interviews (PTIs, sometimes also called ‘parent-teacher conversations’) can be a daunting experience, particularly for beginning teachers. Apart from being one of the rare occasions when the three most important parties in student learning (parents, students and teachers) can come together, a unique dynamic is also created by your identity as a Languages teacher.
Firstly, let’s clarify the parties present at this meeting and the expectations they usually have of one another in order to ensure that a constructive discussion takes place:
However, in reality, we often see:
As you can see from the tables above, there is often a mismatch between the ideal and the reality, leading to inefficient and ineffective use of the limited time allocated to each student. Being aware of this expectation gap will help you manage potential conflict and disappointment. As a teacher, you are in a position of authority and therefore able to manage interactions, including the parents' and student’s expectations of you. You should also be able to assist students in managing the expectations adults have of them.
In the section below, various strategies are provided to help you manage each direction of expectation.
Students' expectations of teachers
Remember that in the school environment, you are never just a teacher – you are also an educator and an adult role model. So always discuss your student as a person who is growing both academically in your subject but also holistically as a person, since the progress in both areas will always be interrelated.
Get to know your student well and avoid referring to the student in discussion as ‘they’, as if you are talking about the student body as a collective group.
Develop mechanisms in class so that students receive regular and ongoing feedback. Reassure them that what you will report to their parent/s will be consistent with what they have been hearing from you in class already. The point of the interview should not be about reporting, but a genuine discussion about ways forward.
Parents' expectations of teachers
Avoid subject-specific jargon, especially in Languages, where many parents are typically less knowledgeable – especially if they come with the mindset that this was the one subject they themselves did not do well in at school.
Gauge the kind and depth of feedback the parent is expecting by starting the conversation with “Do you have any questions for me?” This question signals interest in a dialogue and will allow you to get a sense of their concerns, their understanding of the subject matter, and how much they communicate with the student about their learning. This should help you decide what a suitable amount of feedback may look like.
Students’ behaviour, personality traits, mindset and value system are often a direct mirror image of their parents'. Think carefully about how you might (or might not) bring up concerns reflecting these areas, and how you phrase them, as they may be taken as a direct attack on the adult and their parenting.
Use diplomatic language, but do not avoid discussing areas of concern. When suggesting ways forward, avoid isolating the student as the only party responsible for change. Make it clear to the parents what you will do to support the student.
Teachers' expectations of students
Check with students if they are also attending the parent-teacher interview. Use this question as a hint that you are expecting them and their parents to be there because you really care.
If the student or the parent/s are unable to attend, commit yourself to an alternative form of communication, but insist on the importance of this three-way dialogue for the benefit of the student’s learning.
Encourage students to reflect on their recent progress, both positives and negatives, before attending the interview. Ask them to be specific by writing their ideas down.
Parents' expectations of students
Always start the feedback report with at least three positives, and only after these have been relayed should you then move onto areas of concern. Frame all your concerns into one common theme. Prioritise what is most manageable and urgent. Finish with a positive (e.g. encouragement for the directions and tasks ahead that you have agreed upon).
Incorporate explicit or implied praise about the parents’ engagement in the student’s learning, so that they know you really care about the student and the three-way dialogue.
When discussing ways forward, include students in dialogue and perhaps ask them to think of constructive ways forward. Prompt students to take ownership of their own learning by asking them to consider if the goals they have set are realistic, or if your suggestions and ideas are reasonable.
Your most important mantra is: be organised!
Plan and prep towards PTIs
More often than not, the first parent-teacher interview of the year comes around faster than you think. Ensure that you have your teacher diary/chronicle well-organised and populated with ‘summative’ as well as lots of ‘formative’ assessment data (e.g. homework tasks or tasks in class that were completed by the students plus comments about the quality of their work). Scheduling time to take regular notes about your students’ engagement will pay off come interview time. Parents like to see that your feedback is based on ‘proof’. Both parents and students will feel reassured (and less defensive at times) if you can present a holistic picture of the student’s progress by drawing on varied evidence that includes different sources.
Manage the PTI time
Time allocated for each student for PTIs is very limited – often just six minutes per student. Every school has different procedures, but you should receive some kind of schedule showing the names of parents and students who have requested an interview a couple of days beforehand. Take note of which students and parents are coming to see you, and make sure you've brainstormed the key points you’d like to bring up at the interview. Otherwise you might get to the end of the six-minute time slot and realise that you have exchanged heaps of pleasantries, but haven’t even started to talk about what you actually wanted to discuss.
Know who’s coming
Be aware that students and their parents/guardians might not share the same family name. Check your student class list and their parents’/guardians’ names in advance so you know who’s who.
Listen to the parents. Share stories of how the student has recently used the language and use the opportunity to offer praise and suggest something constructive.
Bring some work samples to show the parents. Seeing pieces of work in another language is often interesting and impressive for non-speakers of the language, even if you might consider the piece of work to be a simple, straightforward task. Having something to point to as an example can also help parents understand technical terms, and prompt them to be more supportive of the student.
Emphasise the importance of studying a language and the need for it to be treated as a core subject (e.g. English and maths) at least in terms of the effort required.
Familiarise yourself with the conventions of your school (if you are new to the profession and/or the school) and observe other teachers to decide on what you are comfortable with (e.g. handshake at the initial meeting, terms of address).
Use politeness strategies to soften the impact of negative feedback, but do not sound hesitant.
Keep eye contact, speak clearly and pay attention to your own intonation, as misinterpreted intonation and tone can lead to misunderstandings.
As you can see, while parent-teacher interviews are not necessarily the most effective way to collaborate with parents and students, they can still be highly constructive if conducted strategically. Once you get the hang of them, you will be able to build good relationships with students and parents quickly and ensure that the learning from this three-way feedback can be translated into the greatest impact on student learning.
Stanley Wang is currently on a sabbatical from his position as Head of Languages at Haileybury. He is travelling around the world to test out his language skills while also working for Teach For Taiwan as their first Chief Strategy Officer.