Student-Led Conferences

I have a very vivid memory of myself sitting on our sofa at my childhood home, as I heard my parents enter the house through our kitchen. I didn’t move. I waited until they entered the living room to better gauge their emotions before I said anything that might incriminate me more. I was a pretty good student, but I had reason to feel nervous when my parents returned home from parent-teacher conferences.

I was a very social kid – obnoxious even – definitely more concerned about my peer-relationships and making people laugh than I was about earning a particular grade or mastering a specific content area. When I earned the title of “Class Clown” in my senior yearbook, I remember how … not exactly proud … my parents were. Middle school and high school are tough times for that reason. Socialization is the center of your universe at that age. For a student to truly invest in her learning, it requires meaningful experiences that help to develop independence, accountability, and honest, thoughtful reflection. I would argue that waiting anxiously at home while my parents received the good news or bad news about my performance and progress in school did little to motivate me or to strengthen my accountability.

Our students each prepare a brief presentation for their conferences, and they lead the entire session themselves. We provide an outline of items we want them to address, and they determine how they want to communicate those ideas to their families. Some create slideshows or videos, while others write books or design display boards. We have even had a treasure hunt created, and one student went so far as to learn how to fold paper cranes, so she could slowly unfold them to reveal new pieces of information about her progress.

We have had parents question us on this format. “It’s called a parent-teacher conference for a reason. I can talk to my child at home any time I want. This is supposed to be my chance to talk with the teacher.” This is certainly a different philosophy, but I want to offer a few challenges to that kind of reasoning.

First of all, if parent-teacher conference time, which happens twice a year, is the only chance a family is getting to interface or communicate with their child’s teacher, we have a problem. I know teachers all over this building who make open-communication with student families a top priority. Emails are written and phone calls are made often. I know teachers who offer their personal cell phone numbers to families to allow for easier connections to be made. Conference time should not be a time where new information is being revealed to or by families, good or bad. That kind of communication should be ongoing throughout the year. Conferences should hold no surprises.

Secondly, it’s true that families can ask their child about his/her learning and progress at school any time they want. Are those conversations as meaningful and in-depth as they could be, though? Are they honest? And are they happening often? I could absolutely sit on the other side of a table from a parent and share insight about how his child is progressing in my class and areas in which I feel he needs improvement. However, much like my young self sitting on the couch at home during that conversation, that student is not likely to get much out of it other than a stern talking-to later that night and perhaps a slight feeling of guilt.

It’s easy to sit by and allow others to talk about your strengths and your struggles. It takes honest, self-reflection, courage, and discipline to be able to look your family and your teachers in the eye to discuss your own strengths and struggles. The ability to recognize these traits in themselves takes guidance, and it takes practice, but when it comes from them, it is far more meaningful. It is one of our biggest motivations in the ARCTIC Zone to develop independence, confidence, self-actualization, and accountability in our students.

Finally, let’s just be really honest. Families are so busy. As valuable as face-to-face interaction is between families and teachers, what should we really hope to accomplish during a conference session? Who should the conference really be about? Numerous studies have been conducted in relation to students leading their own conferences. An article from Educational Leadership states, “With effective structure and support, student-led conferences build motivation, clarity, self-direction, and critical thinking in students; and they also connect families deeply to the growth of their child and the work of the school.”

Just another opportunity to rethink the way things have always been done…



2 thoughts on “Student-Led Conferences

  1. I have the same memories of conferences. Waiting for the bad news.

    It seems to me most conversations about education between parents and students amounts to “what did you learn in school today?” “Nothing.” “Okay.”

    I can’t imagine how invaluable the conference style you describe is in generating honest reflection and real communication.


  2. Maggie Schoenfeld says:

    To flip the tables, as a parent I remember feeling annoyed by the general structure and tenor of our children’s conferences.

    Perfunctory, yet somehow like we were all on trial for the evening. Craning necks to catch a sense of what the parents in front of us were in for. Did they look proud, uneasy, surprised???
    Will we feel relief or concern after this parade of conversations??

    It is even fair to say that some meetings were a waste of time, led by teachers who barely knew our children! Can you say, “Next?”

    I am 100% in support of ongoing, meaningful parent-teacher communication, along with student-led conferences.
    Consider how truly empowering this approach could be–for all involved– especially your child.


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