On the day of parent-teacher conferences, the tension in the room is high. Parents are antsy about the unknown, while students overthink and worry about what their teachers are going to say about them. There's uncomfortable silence and awkward laughter as everyone pushes through, counting down the minutes until it's over.
If the above sounds familiar, then you are not alone. It pretty much sums up how many think about most parent-teacher conferences. They seem pretty terrible and not very useful, right? Yet, as a middle school and high school teacher (and also a parent), I knew there had to be a better way. And in the process of trying to find one, I learned about student-led conferences (SLCs).
What exactly is an SLC?
The SLC puts both the burden and the privilege back on the student by having them participate in the conference as an equal. Most importantly, this means they are part of their own educational team. Students become conversation leaders, meeting facilitators, and evidence producers. So for the most part, they're the ones doing the talking.
With this style of conference, students bring materials, examples, and questions to the meeting. Often, this means students create a portfolio of work to demonstrate their own progress. Students prepare themselves to talk openly about challenges and what they need to work on.
This doesn't mean teachers don't talk at all. In fact, I've learned that there has to be a good balance—parents still want to hear from the teachers themselves. But in this approach, it's much more of a partnership between teachers and students.
As a teacher who has watched hundreds of students lead the conference process over the years, I have to say it's been eye-opening. Students are proud of their accomplishments, and parents are more apt to listen.
So what's the issue with traditional parent-teacher conferences?
The traditional conference is a conversation that takes place “around” the student. And when something less than glowing comes up, the conversation can quickly devolve into a bit of a back-and-forth between the teacher and parent. For example, a teachers says, “Jenny isn’t doing any homework,” and the parent responds, “Wait, really? She tells me she is.”
What would solve the Jenny dilemma? Jenny herself participating in this conversation!
Not only do traditional conferences not allow for the student to speak for themselves, they also cause the adults in the meeting to do some educated guessing on issues that are blocking true learning. As soon as I started inviting students to come to conferences, I eliminated this issue.
My former student Shay attended conferences in my classroom when I was first starting to involve students but hadn’t progressed into full SLCs yet. She explained her feelings dealing with traditional conferences prior to my class: “I was always told to wait in the hallway then come in after they talk to my parent or guardian. I think [an SLC] would be beneficial because some parents don’t pay as much attention as they should,” she said. “[My parents] never took the time out to help me understand what I was falling behind in. I just got into trouble for falling behind.”
Shay’s example shows the benefit for students and parents whose communication around school may have been lacking. SLCs give the student a chance to take ownership for both their accomplishments and areas of need. It also shows the potential damage traditional conferences can have.
Published research on student-led conferences by Maryann J. Dreas-Shaikha, an international educator, seconds Shay’s account. She wrote, “There is a serious need to reconsider the adult-led, grade-centered meetings which are standard school practice; schools need to elevate them with formative assessment that celebrates the student’s endeavor and motivates them to continue learning. Under a reinvented framework for meetings, educators can redefine success and achievement, moving away from narrow, explicit focus on grades and behavior, and towards the exciting process of learning.”
When you give students a voice, they take ownership of their learning.
The skills students develop by leading their own conferences also make for an additional educational opportunity instead of just a night of updates and grade conversations. According to the Association of Secondary School Principals, “The process provides them with valuable opportunities to improve their organization, communication, and leadership skills.”
Another former student of mine, Kirsten, reflected on her own experience with SLCs, which she was lucky enough to begin in sixth grade. She remembers feeling nervous before leading her first conference, but eventually being glad she did.
“I liked it much better than my parents meeting with my teacher without me. During the conference I led the conversation and showed some of the work I completed throughout the year. Overall it was a great experience, and I enjoyed being a part of the conversation rather than just the topic of it,” she said.
She said this style encourages students to “take pride” in their work and to “feel their education is their own.” In addition, she said it encouraged more open lines of communication between herself, her parents, and her teachers.
So does it work? According to the article “Letting Students take the Lead” by Patti Kinney, it does. She explored the SLC format in detail and found that it more than doubled parent participation in conference night.
Learn how to make this happen at your school.
Whether you're a teacher or a parent, you might be able to get this conference format adopted at your school. And yes, it does work for a wide range of ages.
A common myth about SLCs is that they would work well in older grades but that younger students aren’t ready or able to conduct introspective conversations about their own learning. People who believe this haven’t seen an excited kindergartener explain what they learned from a complex project they worked on or witnessed a third grader discuss their goals for the next quarter. With clear direction from the teacher and parent support, it will work at younger grades and create a sense of excitement and pride. This is so much better than the dread surrounding conference night.
If your school doesn’t participate in this format already, propose it. As a teacher, you might be able to implement this method on your own. As a parent, think about bringing the idea to your child's teacher or school administration.
Lead with the positive and use research to help your argument. There are plenty of good articles and information to help your cause. And really, focusing on the point of what's best for the student is what matters most here. By giving kids a stake in their own learning, you're creating a much better experience overall.
If you're a parent and this option isn’t possible or isn’t received well, try requesting that your student attends the conference with you. It's not a full SLC model, but it's a start. Once they are there, you can ask them their opinions and for feedback on comments. Then you can encourage them to ask questions as a solid first step in owning their educational experience.
Once I started doing student-led conferences, I never looked back. It really made a big difference in my relationships with both students and parents. And that alone made it worth it.