P/T Conferences: They’re the Experts

Jess Ledbetter Uncategorized

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There was a quote on my mind a lot during parent-teacher conferences this year: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” It’s been attributed to many authors. (You can check out the history here.) I think these are great words of wisdom for building relationships with families.

I consider myself very fortunate to work with preschool students who have developmental delays. Over the years, I’ve learned that the world says mean things to families of kids with developmental delays. For example, a parent recently told me that her three-year old sons have delays because she “didn’t hold them enough when they were babies.” A doctor told her that! (Yeah, I know. Mythical nonsense!) I think professionals should tread more carefully with their words. Seeing the pain in that mom’s eyes and feeling the weight of her guilt about this belief really got to me. With sincerity I promised, “I will never say mean things like that to you.” Later, I thought about how words affect families—how parents hold on to the things we say. As teachers, I think we should be mindful of the words we speak to parents, especially how the words make them feel about their child and the school system as a whole.

I learned about “deficit thinking” in my grad program, and I’m really on the lookout for these (mis)beliefs in our school system today. As defined by Richard Valencia, deficit thinking “refers to the notion that students (particularly low income, minority students) fail in school because such students and their families experience deficiencies that obstruct the learning process (e.g. limited intelligence, lack of motivation and inadequate home socialization).” This model of thinking leads the school system to try and “help” parents work with their kids rather than celebrating the skills and knowledge that families already possess.

Last year, my school participated in a parent-teacher conferences program that reminded me of the deficit thinking model. During APTT meetings, parents attended large group trainings where teachers “taught” them how to work with their kids and track their educational progress. Parents sat in desks like they were students while the teachers stood at the front. (Talk about underlying messages of power!) Unless parents requested an individual conference, there was not time for parents to share how things were going at home or contribute ideas. The APTT idea bothered me so much that I asked my principal to be excused from participating. I couldn’t give up the conversations and connections I get from individual conferences. To me, the time talking with families is so priceless!

Frankly speaking, I think that parents know a whole lot more about their kids than I do. I treat them as the expert when they come for conferences. I have met some of the hardest working families on the planet—true warriors for their kids. When I’m lucky enough to get a few minutes of their time, my goal is to restock their “supplies” (tips/strategies that have been working for me), give them a pat on the back, and send them back out there to fight for their kids. But more importantly, I hope to gain some wisdom, insight, and strategies that work at home so I can be a more effective teacher for their child at school. When parents share, I take notes. Detailed notes. Parents have a wealth of knowledge.

Now that I’m thinking more carefully about my interactions with families at conferences, I say little and open my ears wide. At conferences in February, I tried to get parents talking as much as possible. I asked about how things were going at home. I asked about tips that might help at school. I asked about things they wanted me to work on with their child. When they shared struggles from home, I asked reflective questions instead of jumping in with answers. I let them solve their own problems while I listened. I thought really carefully about my words—making sure they were words of life, love, and encouragement. I’m not saying that I don’t have some students with challenging issues or behaviors—I’m just saying that I used conferences to invest in the relationships with families so that I can call about those behaviors in the future as needed. You know what? I had awesome conferences and I got some good ideas, too.

Thinking back to the quote, parents might forget the things we said during conferences, and that’s fine with me. I’m far more concerned about the way they felt. When it comes to conferences, I want parents to feel GREAT about our time collaborating and motivated to bring their child to school.


Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms. Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

Comments 4

  1. Sandy Merz

    Thanks for this post. I’ve often thought – and written – that too many teachers tend to look down at parents. PT conferences pretty much follow a script so closely that sometimes I’d like to say, “Let’s just put in the recording of the last one and go out for a coffee and get to know each other.” (That said, I usually do play my role, so I probably shouldn’t criticize so much.) One of the worst things I heard a teacher say to a parent was, “We could all be doing something else right now, but we’re here to help your son.” The comment may have been well-intended about how dedicated we are that we put things aside to help a student, but to me it sounded like, “You’re keeping us from more important things…” My grade level has a few more discipline problems than usual this year – not the worst ever – but it’s been tough. I only have students for a semester and got most the “hard cases” after Christmas. Right away I started making both positive and negative phone calls – a lot – and telling students every day – I’ve now made X phone calls home. As a result, I’m not having nearly the number of issues other colleagues have. My students don’t necessarily get better grades, and there are frequent tough periods, but I haven’t had to refer any student, call for the principal, or have any restorative circles with students. We document calls and I can see that only one other colleague consistently calls home (and always negatively), another two occasionally, and another two haven’t called home even once. When I call, I try my hardest to explain the situation in a neutral tone and ask the parent directly for feedback. It almost always works well, like you say, you can learn a lot by listening. Well, I’ve gone on more than I expected – thanks again for this post.

  2. Audra Damron

    You know I agree with this 100%! I run my conferences in a similar fashion and am always so interested to hear the great things families are doing to work with their students at home and the goals they have for their students. We are all on the same side when it comes to working with students but at the end of the day, parents are their child’s first and best teacher and as educators, we need to do more to support them and build them up! Thanks for sharing, Jess!

  3. Donnie Lee

    I’ve said time and time again that no ones knows a child like their parents. Teachers spend 8 hours a day with kids but parents see them so much more. Teachers see students in classroom settings which doesn’t always allow students to show their true personalities. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from a parent after telling them how quiet their kid was in class that they can’t get them quiet at home. I like the importance that you place on listening to parents. Do you think there are any situations in which parents should be handled more driectly?

  4. Danielle Brown

    Great piece about the value of parents & the true role they play in their child’s education.

    I would bet that most educators refer to parents as their partners, but do they treat them that way?

    I am always interested in hearing how students behave at home because it gives me a sense of who they really are. The child I see in school is just a small part of the child as a whole.

    Have you found that parents find it “hard” to share about their child? Have we conditioned parents to sit & listen in conferences vs. being participants? You have the luxury of starting early & think we can all learn from your ideas.

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