Top Tips for Parent Interviews
By Meagan Gillmore
Preparing for parent-teacher interviews can be as stressful, perhaps more, than assembling the grades often discussed at them—especially because teachers often receive little training on properly conducting an interview.
Ideally, parents and teachers both want students to succeed, academically and personally. But tension can rise when expectations about how to achieve success are unclear, or not being met to the parents’ or teacher’s satisfaction.
Parents need to know teachers care about their child. Teachers should begin every interview by saying something positive about the student. This helps put parents at ease.
Managing a classroom is stressful, but parents aren’t concerned about the needs of their child’s classmates, says Mark Neugebauer, a former teacher in the York Region District School Board in Ontario. “They don’t care about those other 29 kids (in the class),” says Neugebauer, who in 30 years of teaching says he was known for maintaining good relationships with parents, “all they care about is their own child.”
But it’s not enough to view students positively. Teachers also need to have a positive outlook about the whole interview process.
Parent-teacher interviews may seem difficult, but that’s because they’re important conversations to have, says Danielle Fullan Kolton, a staff officer in the professional and French languages services department at the Manitoba Teachers’ Society who gives workshops on how to manage difficult conversations. Difficult conversations are about two positive things, she says: achieving a result and strengthening the relationship, in this case, between the teachers, students, and parents.
Teachers can use a framework to have effective interviews, explains Fullan Kolton. First, begin by stating the goal or purpose of the interview. Then, state the facts. In this case, things they have heard the student say or watched the student do. After that, teachers can give a possible interpretation about why they think a child may be behaving a certain way. Then comes what may be the hardest part: staying quiet and listening to the parents. “The parent needs to talk, so let the parent talk,” she says, noting teachers should ask lots of questions. Only then should teachers move to the final part of the interview: making goals to help students succeed.
While listening is crucial, teachers also need to give good information about a student’s academic and social performance. Have report cards and student work ready to show, along with detailed anecdotal evidence about classroom behaviour, or interactions with other students. Teachers should be able to discuss learning styles, abilities, and disabilities intelligently.
Don’t be too technical. Avoid using teaching jargon, says Ray Myrtle, who taught elementary grades for more than 20 years in Burnaby, B.C. “We spend a long time learning all the jargon words of teaching, and it’s easy to throw them in there, but most of the parents don’t have that background,” he says.
Involving students in the interview may help. Lynn Hemming, a former high school English teacher in Drumheller, AB, sometimes had students write reflections about how they felt they were doing in the course. They wrote about what they thought they were doing well, where they were improving, where they wanted to improve, and what were their goals for the course. It “worked like a charm,” says Hemming. If students were at the interview, she would have them read the reflection to their parents. If students couldn’t attend, she’d read it to the parents. “It makes your job (as a teacher) a whole lot easier, because you don’t have to say it,” she says. This also helps students think more critically about how they can improve their work, she says.
Respect each student’s individuality. Teachers should not compare siblings. Showing examples of exemplary work can help parents see what results the teacher wants. But keep examples anonymous, says Hemming. She didn’t use work from a student’s current classmates as examples, either.
Teachers can’t force parents to attend interviews, and some situations present challenges outside their control. Teachers may need to schedule different interviews for parents who don’t live together. Parents may discuss their own relational struggles during the interview. Teachers aren’t supposed to be marriage counsellors, says Fullan Kolton. They need to “keep their eye on the prize” of helping students succeed, she says. This means keeping the interview focused.
Communicating with parents who don’t speak English well can be difficult. Many school boards have interpreters available for interviews, or parents may bring someone to help translate. Myrtle suggests teachers provide all parents with a one-page summary of the interview. This can especially help those who don’t speak English well, he says.
Teachers may have colleagues’ children as students. In these situations, the same protocol for parent-teacher interviews applies. “You don’t need to tell your colleagues anything that you wouldn’t tell another parent,” says Hemming. Teachers in these situations need to remember interviews are about discussing student’s work– they’re not for comparing lesson plans or swapping teacher stories.
Improvement is the goal of every interview. “Teachers are not detectives, or policemen, or judges,” says Myrtle. “What I try to do is be a teacher. And that means that teachers are forward-looking and preparing students for the future.”
This means encouraging effective communication with parents when an interview’s done. It may not be possible, or necessary, to send every parent a follow-up email. But sometimes, scheduling a later appointment to discuss a student’s progress and see how improvement plans are being implemented is helpful. It also shows parents teachers care.
Teachers should be wise about how they communicate. “Do not get into difficult conversations over email,” Fullan Kolton, herself a former teacher and principal, says. Email works best for giving positive feedback about a student, or telling parents about administrative items, like field trips or special events, says Fullan Kolton. People like emails because they seem safer. “When you’re sitting face to face with someone, you’re vulnerable,” she explains. Emails allow people to edit themselves more. But without facial expressions or vocal cues, words are often misinterpreted. Well-intentioned information may come across as cold and clinical, and that can upset parents. Emails should not be used to discuss confidential matters.
Keep the future in mind: relationships last longer than interviews. “Report cards come and go. Learning styles, and projects, and assignments, and textbooks, and units, and interactions, this will come and go,” says Neugebauer. “But the child doesn’t come and go. And what is built into the child’s self-esteem is a thing that will last forever. They won’t remember what you taught them in Grade 6, (they’ll) remember if you had a relationship with them. … And the parents will do the same, that’s what they’ll remember.”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto.