It’s conference season—the time of the year when parents and teachers meet to discuss each student’s progress.
In most schools, this is a private conversation between the child’s teacher and parent(s). It usually starts with pleasant introductions. The teacher offers an overview about the student’s performance, and then they explain the report card or other set of data. The teacher may point out a few areas in which the child could improve. The parent may ask a few questions. It is brief.
The teacher goes on to have 20 to 30 strikingly similar conversations, and the parent may or may not relay some of the information to the child.
This long-held routine is often transactional, and it reinforces a power dynamic: The teacher is the expert. The parent is a passive participant, just sitting there listening and learning about their child, as if they were not there from birth or during last night’s tantrum or for all the hand-holding in-between. The subject—the child—is not even in the room. For lack of a better comparison, it would be like your boss and your boss’s boss discussing your performance and upcoming goals without you even being present.
There is another way. More and more schools, including my former school in Oakland, Calif., have switched from parent-teacher conferences to “student-led conferences,” in which the student, whether 7 or 17 years old, facilitates the conversation with their teacher and parent.
Typically, the student begins by sharing what they’re enjoying in school, as well as what they consider to be their strengths and challenges. They might read their own writing aloud. They often review their own report card or data set, explaining what it means to them and why.
This arrangement does not have to be fancy or formal. In my school, we used graph paper and binders. Kindergarteners used smiley faces to indicate skills they had learned. Third graders made simple bar graphs to capture their improved reading levels. Eighth graders got a little more sophisticated with Google Slides.
Regardless of format or delivery, the important thread is that the student is always leading the conversation. The teacher might chime in to provide more context and the parent might ask clarifying questions or offer input, but it is the student who does the majority of the talking.
At the end, the student often concludes by sharing the next steps they will take to reach the goals that they set. The student, in student-led conferences, is an active presenter and participant—quite different from the role of the student in a traditional parent-teacher conference.
Many educational reforms are criticized for being too expensive or trendy—and rightly so. Yet here is an approach that is free, efficient and has huge implications. It puts the student in the driver seat. It allows them to share, reflect and take ownership of their learning. It sends a clear message to the student: We trust you, we believe in you and we are here to support you. It also gives parents an opportunity to ask questions and offer input to the person who they know best, without potentially feeling ostracized by a teacher-parent power dynamic.
I have seen this approach work beautifully for non-English-speaking families, especially. I remember watching a 7th grader lead a bilingual conference. They sat in a circle. The student shared her portfolio, explaining her progress to her father in Spanish and then to her teacher in English. The student was able to leverage her bilingualism to facilitate the conversation such that all languages were honored and equally valued.
Another favorite memory of mine was attending Mateo’s spring conference. Mateo was a 5th grade student who had not experienced a lot of success in school up to that point. During his fall conference, he had shared that he wanted to improve in reading and multiplication. In the spring, he proudly presented his growth, showing his parents that he had climbed two grade levels in reading and had learned his multiplication facts. His face beamed as he saw their tearful reactions. Not only did he reach his goals, but he was able to explain how he got there and see the pride that brought his family.
Are there instances where the teacher and parent should communicate without the student present? Sure, there are circumstances that are more suitable for an adult-only conversation. But when it comes to student learning, how can they not be there?
Does this work for young children, too? Yes—I’ve seen it for myself. They may require more scaffolding and teacher guidance, but ask a kindergartener what they have learned, and they will proudly tell you just how high they can count and which letters they know. Here are great examples of these conferences in action at different levels: kindergarten, middle school, and high school.
To give students ample time to prepare for this conversation—a project many of them are excited to lead—we would devote a class period or two to it prior to the conference week. Every K-8 student would have the chance to make their portfolio or “data binder.” They would select their favorite writing piece, color in their bar graphs, reflect on their progress, and write their goals. Now there are many templates, tools and resources available for educators to help guide the process. This does take instructional time, but it also teaches the valuable lifelong skills of goal-setting, reflecting and action planning.
Some school systems like Achievement First Greenfield, a charter network in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, are taking this even further. They know that students, especially teenagers, are greatly influenced by many people in their lives. Therefore, every student has a Dream Team—a group of adults, from coaches to pastors to relatives—who are committed to supporting the student’s success. They come together more frequently than the typical twice-a-year-conference, giving the student the opportunity to share progress, challenges and goals with the people who matter most to them.
If we want students to feel motivated and excited about their own learning, then the very least we can do is to invite them to the conversation.