Fix Contentious Parent-Teacher Conferences in These 6 Steps

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This post was originally published in Education Week Teacher.


Parent-teacher conferences can be some of the most rewarding—or the most stress-inducing—experiences of the school year for teachers.

If students are making progress academically and thriving socially, it’s a joy to discuss these achievements with families. But often, teachers may need to have more difficult conversations—discussing strategies for students who are struggling, or fielding parents’ questions about new school or district initiatives that teachers are implementing in their classrooms.

Sometimes, these programmatic changes can be extremely stressful for parents. One example, which I’ve encountered often, is the phasing out of gifted education pull-out services. Some schools do this in favor of meeting the needs of all students in a whole-class setting through differentiated instruction.

During the first year or two of this transition, teachers often have to address the questions, concerns, and criticisms of parents whose children had previously been pulled out by a specialist and are now receiving this enrichment in the general classroom.

When a parent presents concerns to a teacher who is still adapting to this change herself, it can make the teacher anxious, or even put her on the defensive. Once on the defensive, teachers (and humans in general) struggle to redirect conversations to a more positive place. Ultimately, in these cases, the parent-teacher conference ends poorly, with both parties feeling unable to move forward with a good plan for the child’s education.

To avoid these precarious situations, I recommend the following six steps for ensuring conferences with contentious (or concerned) parents are productive:

Step 1: Summarize what the parents say to ensure a common understanding.

“It sounds like you are concerned that your son is bored/not challenged in math now that he is no longer being pulled out for enrichment services.”

Step 2: Acknowledge and validate the parents’ emotion.

Parents are entitled to feel how they do. When you validate the emotion, parents no longer have to be on the defensive.

“I completely understand and agree with your frustration. Your son should absolutely be engaged and appropriately challenged in math. Please know, I want the same thing as you.”

Step 3: Ask questions instead of making statements to get a clearer picture of where the parent is coming from.

Teacher: “What is making you think your son is bored in math?”
Parent: “He says he is.”
Teacher: “Does he say why or when he is bored?”
Parent: “No. He just says he is always bored.”

Step 4: Respond with evidence.

“I understand. Now, what I want to do is determine if your son is bored because he is not being challenged, or if your son is bored because he doesn’t find the content relevant.

Either way, it is my job to make sure we find a remedy. I want to ensure I choose the most appropriate approach. Take a look at this information with me. [Here, share recent formative-assessment data related to the math concept.] What I see here is that your son is being challenged. He’s making appropriate growth toward mastering this content and is on track to master it soon. That leads me to believe your son may be bored because he doesn’t see why it’s important to learn this.”

Step 5: Suggest an action, and ask the parents if this suggestion sounds reasonable to them.

“I think it would be helpful if I chatted with your son to see if we can get more information as to the cause of his boredom. Once I know that, he and I will create a plan of action and share that with you. How does this sound?”

Step 6: Follow up with the student and parents.

After the conference, talk with the student about the issue at hand and create a plan. Then, bring the parents back into the loop. Ideally, the student is also a part of this conversation. Consider using technology like FaceTime, Skype, or a group chat to involve all parties.

Parents want what is best for their children, yet they don’t always know what is best when it comes to their education. Students can excel in classroom environments that may be foreign to parents. But if parents are worried about their child’s needs being overlooked, it can make conferences feel like an attack on teachers as both professionals and human beings.

This is the most unfortunate of circumstances because when it comes down to it, parents, teachers, and students all want the same thing: for students to learn. By following these six steps during parent-teacher conferences, teachers ensure that they form a partnership with parents rather than an adversarial relationship fraught with negative emotions and power struggles.


Why Differentiation Misses the Mark for Gifted Students

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Last week I wrote Differentiation: Attainable or Somewhere Over The Rainbow which addresses some common objections related to differentiated instruction. One of these arguments being that many educators and gifted education advocates believe the needs of gifted students are not being met in the ‘regular’ classroom through differentiation.

Dr. Jim Delisle, author and gifted education expert, brought this topic to the forefront in his 2015 EdWeek Commentary Piece, Differentiation Doesn’t Work. I was first alerted to Delisle’s article via a Facebook update posted by a teacher I attended graduate school with thirteen years earlier. I remember initially feeling quite defensive when I saw her post:

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Delisle claims (and my former classmate concurs) that differentiation is nothing more than a great proposition which is impossible to achieve: “It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals.”

Delisle goes on to warn readers that it is our high-achieving students who stand to lose the most from the unfulfilled promise of differentiation and suggests there is only one possible solution to meet the needs of these students: “Differentiation might have a chance to work if we are willing, as a nation, to return to the days when students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own.”

Delisle is not entirely wrong.
If a teacher wants to differentiate effectively in a traditional classroom setting, I agree with Delisle when he says, “Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.”

Effectively differentiating instruction in a customary classroom setting (teacher imparts knowledge and students show they retain the information) is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Of course, one teacher cannot conduct three different lectures simultaneously. And, it is quite likely that we have experienced assigning group-work where the high kids do all of the work.  And, ultimately, when a teacher in a traditional classroom is presented with a class made up of all types of learners they are forced to teach to the middle which will undoubtedly build frustration for gifted and struggling students alike.

Therefore, I can understand when Delisle suggests reverting back to tracked classes, with students sorted neatly into groups with similar learners. All students deserve the opportunity to learn at a pace that is appropriate for them and tracking students certainly does make pacing easier.

Except, we are solving the wrong problem
Now, before the gifted folks jump on me again, let me preface, as a former gifted teacher and a differentiation instructional coach, I am an ardent proponent of identifying gifted students just as we identify special education students. The needs of gifted students, without question, require special consideration, action plans, follow-through, and monitoring.

With that being said, I also strongly believe that these students’ needs can be met through differentiated instruction in a “regular” classroom. Because, differentiation in it of itself, is not the problem. Rather, our nation’s lack of ubiquitous implementation of differentiated instruction is a symptom of a much larger problem.

The actual issue is the lingering remnants of the factory model/mindset of education still largely ingrained in our educational system today. Case in point, tracking students is a direct result of schools which prepared students for predetermined career paths.

During the industrialization era students were placed on tracks with finite destinations: factory worker, tradesman, professional with a higher-level degree. Future tradesman sat next to other future tradesman, future professionals learned alongside other future professionals.

But, putting students on these same tracks today poses a significant problem because these tracks no longer lead to known destinations. As first indicated in a report from  U.S. Department of Labor called  Future Work Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century and later analyzed for potential implications and solutions for schools by ISTE Connects, 65% of jobs to become available in the future have yet to be created.

Job trends since 1999 support this statistic as new jobs and categories in the services provided industry continue to experience exponential growth, while other industries like manufacturing, continue to trend downward (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

With this information in mind, our focus must shift from preparing students to interact with similar learners to finding ways to ensure our students can productively collaborate with all types of learners. Doing so is critical for our students’ long-term success.

Therefore, teachers must conduct orchestras, not trains.
If our ever-evolving world is not a compelling enough reason to focus on the real problem, let’s also consider this, even in a gifted or tracked class, teachers still need to differentiate for their students.

Programming alone will not meet students’ needs. In Beyond Gifted Education, Designing and Implementing Advanced Academic Programs, authors Scott Peters, Michael Matthews, Matthew McBee, and D. Betsy McCoach state, “Not all students who are labeled gifted require the same things in order to receive an appropriate educational experience. Just as not all gifted students require the same services, a given individual (gifted or not) does not automatically need the same services year after year.”

And, this is the bottom line. Learners’ needs, gifted or not, are fluid. Learning is fluid. However, our current educational system is largely static. We hear a lot talk about student and teacher innovation. Many times we look to the silver bullet (as Peter Dewitt points out in Can We Destroy the Silver Bullet Mentality Before It Destroys Us?) which takes on the form of implementing a tech tool or making something fit in our current practice without changing what we have “always done”.

But, what is really innovative is doing what needs to be done to help shape the next education model- one where the academic and social-emotional success of all students is the only priority. Differentiating instruction for our students needs is one of the ways to do this, and as indicated above, differentiated instruction is more effective when we consider the environment in which we try to implement it and adjust accordingly.

But, How?
I wish I had a linear plan for how to systemically change our educational model. But, I don’t.  I also recognize there are people who consider school reformers to be idealistic. And, I don’t know, maybe we are.

But, I also know there are steps educators can take to collectively propel us forward or there are things we can do (or not do) to ensure we stay stagnant. It is up to us to decide which route we want to take. As country music singer Jimmy Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”

I can’t help but think that, maybe, if we all adjust our sails, we may actually have a shot at changing the direction of the wind.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Education Radio @BAMRadioNetwork