As a new music teacher, you will find that your first parent-teacher conference is one of the most important events of your career. When parents meet you in person they may quickly decide if you are the kind of teacher that they want working with their child. There are no do-overs for this event, but if you do your homework, conferences will be very positive and can help you create a powerful connection with your parents.
As you read this article, you will notice that several tips are about other things than just the conference day event. That’s because successful conferences are similar to successful concerts: all the preparation must be done before the performance.
10. Conferences Involve Far More than a Grade
Most parents want to know how their child is doing in your class, what is going well for them, and where they need to improve. They also want to know how are you helping their child. Put yourself in the place of your parents for a minute. Imagine going to the doctor for your annual check up. At the end of your appointment, your doctor tells you that you are a ‘B+’ with a score of ‘88’, shares no other information and leaves the room. This would seem pretty bizarre. You would not accept just an ‘88’ as a good answer. How is this different than parents coming to a conference where you announce their child’s grades without any data, progress reports and assessments?
You might think that because you worked hard, did all the right things, and made fair, (perhaps subjective) judgments about each child’s grades, parents should take you at your word.
9. Communicate School Policies on Day One
At the beginning of the year, it’s your responsibility to establish and communicate the goals, processes, schedules and expectations for your class. Make sure you are on the same page as your administrators: policies for grading, school trips, fundraising, attendance for concerts, as well as preferred methods of parent communication (email, website, newsletters, online grading programs).
Develop and distribute your handbook. Require parent and student signatures acknowledging that they received the handbook and will abide by the policies. Include specific details regarding concerts, special rehearsals, field trips, festivals, tours, pep band, attendance, assignments, grading policies and fundraising. Include your contact information so if parents have questions, they know how to reach you.
8. Consistent Class Management Is a Must
As a new teacher, you may initially experience some behavior issues in class. However, consistent classroom expectations will create a positive learning environment and over time, good behavior will quickly become “standard operating procedure” in your class. Rachel Maxwell and Jessica Corry are band directors at Traughber Junior High School, Oswego, IL. Recently they wrote an exceptional blog titled: Six Classroom Management Strategies. This blog features their successful classroom policies: Teach, Model, Re-teach Routines, Non-Verbal Signals, Keeping Rules Simple, Organize Your Space and Consistent Expectations. I wish I had known these tips when I started teaching — it’s a must read.
7. Be Pro-active and Call
If you have an issue with a student, be prepared to address the behavior without attacking the student as a person. When disciplining students, speak to students as if their parents were standing next to them. Be pro-active! Call a parent when you notice a problem. Small problems can escalate quickly. While emails are faster, they lack nuance and are easily misunderstood. The three best ways to approach these situations are to use the phone, use the phone or use the phone. Your call is very time sensitive! If you call the same day, you may be viewed as a concerned and supportive partner in their child’s success. However if you wait, you are now deemed to be “the problem.” Remember: There is a fine line between leading a parade and being chased out of town by an angry mob.
6. Have Specific Goals for Your First Meeting with Parents
- What do you want to communicate?
- How do you want parents to think of you?
- What do you want to learn from the parent?
- Specifically, what will you do before and at the conference to create a positive relationship?
5. Body Language Matters
Conferences typically happen in a large room with many teachers or in your own department. Either way, it’s important to make the physical setting as inviting as possible. Sitting directly across the table sets up an adversarial relationship before you even start your visit. Sit on the same side of the table or create a seating arrangement that is inviting for the parent. At the same time, always be careful to keep other student’s data private.
4. If You Want to Know What Parents Think… Ask Them!
Kevin Mead, band director, Churchville-Chili School District, Churchville, New York, says: “Don’t go into the conference prepared only to answer questions. Go into the meeting ready to ask questions. Seek information that will help both you and the parents meet the needs of the student. This applies whether the meeting has a positive or negative connotation. In the case of music teachers, questions like: Does the student sing at home, alone only or for company? Where in the house do they practice? What time of day do they practice? When they make a mistake do they know how to fix it? Questions about personal likes and dislikes can also be helpful to aid the teacher in making a connection to their students. Long story short, if the parent is the only one asking questions, the parent is the only one gathering information.”
3. Listen to Your Mentors
Dr. Glenn Pohland, associate professor of music, Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa, has helped student teachers prepare for their teaching world for many years. He recommends the following:
- DO have documentation: This can be in the form of charts of scale check-offs, pencils in the folders, instrument in proper playing condition, etc. You must have authentic and clearly defined assessments that are easy to document and share with the parents.
- DO have progress reports. These are easily created and are similar to those used by the other teachers in the building. They may include any type of assignment that you have given and assessed.
- DO have rubrics available for the parents to see. Often times, we, as music teachers, talk a different language that parents are not familiar with so having a rubric that defines the concepts that we are assessing can be very beneficial.
- DON’T talk about attitude. Parents like when you say nice things about their kids but never grade on attitude, it is very hard to put a number to this and leaves too much room for “favorites.” All of the students are special in their own way and parents need to hear that.
- DON’T talk over the parent’s heads. You are the music expert and the language we sometimes use in talking about music is not standard. Keep remarks clear and meaningful to those parents who may know nothing about the music itself. They will understand missed lessons, poor scores, scale check-offs etc., but may not understand fortissimo, phrasing, or intonation!
2. Create a Culture of Quality Through Leadership/Modeling
Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser is regarded as a music education leader and is a keynote speaker at conventions around the country. In his book, “Music Advocacy and Student Leadership,” he writes:
“One of the most difficult challenges directors face has little to do with the actual teaching of music; it concerns the establishment of a positive learning atmosphere that encourages the members of the group to contribute without fear of embarrassment, reprimand, pain, etc.
If the students assume a defensive posture to protect themselves, it becomes impossible to access their creative potential; however, if the director consistently models a forward-focused discipline, a remarkable shift in attitudes, energy and performance can be felt. There will be a dramatic improvement recognized in every facet of the rehearsal climate and performance achievement.”
Can you imagine how positive Dr. Tim’s parent conferences were?
1. Do What Successful Music Educators Do
You don’t have to be a veteran teacher to have great relationships with parents, students and administrators. However, you do have to do things that successful teachers have always done. Establish clear and consistent goals and policies. Communicate clearly and often with parents, students, and administrators and establish a culture of quality through leadership/modeling.
Oh yes, for one last tip, please remember that every day is conference day.
Leigh Kallestad is a music education manager at MakeMusic, the creator of Finale and SmartMusic.
He develops training for school in-services, regional workshops, online events, as well as presents clinics/workshops nationally and internationally.
Leigh is also a co-author of MakeMusic University eLearning courses.