Five questions for parent conversations

For teachers, parent nights and parent phone calls are often a deep source of stress. It’s never fun to be the bearer of bad news — and there will be some difficult conversations when students are struggling.

We want to communicate with our students’ parents, but we don’t want to say the wrong thing, and we don’t want to be chastised or blamed either.

I’ve found the conversation goes a lot better when the student attends as well, and when my role is more about asking questions than “telling them how it is.”

Here are a few questions to ask when you have time to talk with a struggling student and parent together.

  1. How do you think this class is going? This is the key question. I can’t count how many times I’ve been worried about a student, and it turns out the child and parent were unsurprised and happy with just a passing grade. Or when I’ve thought everything was fine, but they’re unhappy with an A- or B+. It’s critical to get the student’s expectations and perceptions on the table right away.
  2. What would help you do better? If the child or parent are unhappy with current performance, ask what they need. I’ve stopped giving prescriptive advice, like “you need to review the textbook” or “you need to study more” or “you need to come in for help.” We need to help students develop metacognition, and that means helping them figure out what helps them learn.
  3. Do you want to review the test? Some teachers are very concerned about pulling out tests — worried that parents will question the fairness or validity of questions — but I’ve found that most parents are supportive when they see how reasonable my tests are. (Especially when the student has been complaining at home.)
  4. Do you need additional resources? My class website has links to videos, MOOCs, review questions and a host of other resources to help students learn, practice and review. Students generally don’t scour the site to figure this out, but conference are a great time to show them what’s available. If they want it, of course.
  5. Are there any distractions that are getting in your way? Students are distracted all the time by texts, social media, and talking with classmates, but it’s important that they become aware of how these distractions may impact their learning. I might share some of the research on smart phones and academic performance, especially if a student is struggling and is a heavy phone user, but again — I’d rather they reflect and identify this as a problem.

Cutting the lectures to parents and sticking to questions has smoothed over most of my conversations over the past few years. When I’m asking — not telling — it de-escalates most confrontations, and we end up on the same page.

We’re on spring break now, so I’ll be back to this blog in two weeks!