listening conferences

Last week, my colleagues and I finished the first day of school with a few hours of… parent-teacher conferences. If the thought of conferences in September seems odd, consider this: it’s the families who do most of the talking.

At each twenty minute conference, families have an open opportunity to share. They might describe their hopes and goals for the child for the year, the child’s strengths and challenges, likes and dislikes, summer experiences, budding friendships or skills they’d like to see nurtured. These conferences are a great time to find out about previous academic or social-emotional strategies that have helped a child, as well as set logistical parameters like how and when families prefer to be contacted. (A sample of questions for listening conferences is at the end of this post.)

Many teachers send home a family questionnaire or have students write them a letter before the first day of school, but when it comes to more sensitive information, a face to face conference goes a long way toward establishing trust and making it clear to families that they have your ear.

Going beyond logistics and strategies, listening conferences are a tangible way to demonstrate our belief that families are the experts on their own children. These brief meetings translate philosophy to action, and in the end what speaks loudest is that they help  the adults on both sides of the table. As a teaching team, we are better prepared to serve the kids in the room because we know some of the successes, struggles, and experiences they are bringing with them. Sometimes we get a glimpse as we listen into parents’ own experiences with schooling or childhood (which can be important information to have for partnering with them). Regardless of how often we hear from or see that family afterward, a channel is open for communication and the beginning of a trusting relationship.

Many educators have been sharing and talking about #iwishmyteacherknew as a similar tool for building relationships and gathering information. I’m all for it, with the important caveat of privacy: what families and or kids share is for us to take in as professionals. I am deeply uncomfortable with a teacher turning a  community-building tool into an income stream, and I appreciate the educators whose responses and critiques have pushed my own thinking about this exercise. (Start with Rafranz Davis’s post and Bill Fitzgerald’s tweets about the very real privacy concerns in this exercise.)

I’m not against teachers sharing strategies or having professional learning communities via social media or any other channel. But these exchanges should never mean compromising the privacy of students and their families.

To take that a step further, we should question the formal and informal systems in which a child or adult’s willingness to share about herself becomes a prerequisite for care and effective instruction. As Davis put it, we don’t need a writing activity to know that some of our students are struggling with poverty, lack of resources, self-esteem, family relationships, or other challenges. I’m left asking myself what I’m doing in my class every day to meet the needs of those kids whose struggles I have the privilege to know about, and those I don’t, because I am equally responsible for each of those children.

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