Every fall, general education teachers in schools across the United States have questions about the parent conferences that they are getting ready to hold with the families of their EL students. One of the roles of ESL teachers should be to provide support to their colleagues so that this very important meeting with parents can be productive and help schools build a relationship with parents.
Many classroom teachers and administrators do not know how to communicate with parents who do not speak English and who are not familiar with U.S. school practices. Most families of ELs have not had much interaction with school personnel, and they may not even know their child’s classroom teacher. They do not understand what the purpose of a parent-teacher conference is.
I think that it’s important for teachers to make their parent-teacher conferences part of an ongoing conversation with the families of their ELs. Teachers need to meet the families of ELs before the parent-teacher conference takes place so that they can begin to build a relationship with them. Last April, I published a blog titled “How to Hold Effective Conferences With Families of ELs,” which details how to plan a successful conference. This week’s blog contains five additional thoughts on holding the first parent conferences of the school year.
1) Think about your conference from the parents’ point of view.
Parents will have many concerns about attemding a parent-teacher conference. They will worry about getting off from work. They will also be concerned about not being able to speak English well enough to understand what the teacher says. Also, they may not have childcare for their children or a ride to the school. Schools need to find solutions to both of these concerns. They need to find creative ways to plan conferences that fit into the work schedule of parents. They need to provide childcare and rides to the conference site. Information about interpreters should be included in the notice sent to parents. There is a really excellent article on the Colorin Colorado website on conference concerns entitled “Tips for Parents: Parent-Teacher Conferences.” This tip sheet is also available in Spanish.
2) Develop relationships with the families of your ELs before the school year begins.
Many school districts hold social events such as a barbeque or picnic in order to meet EL families in an informal atmosphere. One school that I know sets up a coffee area where parents can meet the principal and other school personnel during the first week of school. It also provides families the opportunity to get to know the school personnel who will be interacting with their children.
Some school districts make home visits either before school starts or early in the school year. Home visits are not designed to replace parent conferences but to establish rapport with families and to demonstrate the school’s willingness to meet parents halfway (Colorin Colorado).
3) Hold a group ESL parent meeting early in the school year.
Another way to have contact with parents before the parent-teacher conference is to hold a group meeting for the parents of ELs in the evening. This meeting is designed to help parents understand your school’s culture, procedures, and expectations, and to improve communication between school staff and parents. School rules, the school calendar, the ESL program, and other items specific to your school can be presented. Parents will have an opportunity to express concerns and ask questions using an interpreter.
4) Develop resources to provide interpreting and translating services to parents.
These are key for building a relationship with the families of ELs. Many parents do not speak English well enough to understand the academic language you will be using during your conference. Schools also need to realize that it’s important to the success of the parent conference to offer the services of an interpreter for parents who need one. In order to send any written communication to parents, your school district needs to provide a translated message in their first language. The U.S. Office of Civil Rights requires that interpretation and translations into native language be available for the families of your ELs. See Schools’ Civil Rights Obligations to English Learner Students and Limited English Proficient Parents.
5) Check out the growing trend of student-led parent-teacher conferences.
Student-led conferences combine the idea of an open house with a sit-down discussion with the teacher where the student shows his or her work. Many school districts have occasions when they have parents come to school to see student work that they call an Open House. This usually happens near the end of the school year.
It is my view that it is an excellent idea to have parents come in to school and to have their children show them what they are learning, but I don’t think this should replace a parent-teacher conference for families of ELs. At the beginning of the school year, ELs may not speak English well enough to explain their work to their parents. They may not yet feel comfortable enough to do this. If the parents do not speak any English, there is a tendency for their student to serve as interpreter for the conference. I don’t think the family should be put in this position, as it may upset the parent/child dynamics of the family. Also, not all that is said at a parent-teacher conference is positive, although positive information should be a large part of it. Teachers may need to get or provide information about the family or the child that would not be appropriate to discuss in front of the child.
Have you had experiences with student-led conferences? Please share them with us in the comment section of this blog.