Parent-teacher conferences have always been important, perhaps never more so than now, with many schools across the country closed to in-person teaching since last spring. Some students have only had access to class instruction through Zoom, an experiment that everyone hopes against reason will minimally impact children’s learning and development, but an experiment, nonetheless. During the last year, even students attending schools with ample resources have experienced reduced days and modified curricula. There are few children whose academic experiences have been wholly unaffected. It’s why experts estimate that some students may have lost up to a year of academic gains.
For students who struggled academically before the pandemic, closings may have at first seemed like a gift, a respite from daily struggles to keep or catch up. Some struggling students, with support from their parents, used the increased free time to remediate areas of weakness and make gains. But others, who could not afford to fall further behind their peers, had a difficult time being self-motivated enough to persist and maintain focus in a virtual setting. They needed more attention from teachers, but the virtual format made that difficult.
Whether children entered quarantine behind or ahead in their studies, their parents want and need to know where they have landed. Conferences that provide an opportunity for parents and teachers to monitor and assess children’s progress, performance and achievement are more necessary now than ever. Unexpectedly, COVID has introduced an opportunity to make these conversations more honest and transparent and start a trend that could persist post-pandemic.
The pandemic has enabled teachers to be more forthcoming, possibly because they believe that parents are less likely to blame student deficiencies on their teaching abilities. Most parents, at home supervising or at least observing their children’s learning for a significant part of the past year, are more able to see and acknowledge their children’s weaknesses. They also have a built-in benign explanation for any struggles: less instructional time rather than a lack of intelligence.
Another upshot of COVID-schooling is that it often offers more hours in the day to provide additional support. Virtual days tend to end earlier than regular in-person school days. With many schools doing virtual programming or some hybrid of virtual and in-person learning, some families are better able to give support at home, and remediation and enrichment may be easier than in the past when it usually occurred after an already long school day.
The pandemic has enabled teachers to be more forthcoming, possibly because they believe that parents are less likely to blame student deficiencies on their teaching abilities.
To take advantage of these opportunities, it will be critical for teachers to provide parents with detailed information about their children’s learning. In an effort to be gentle with parents who are still coping with juggling too many demands, teachers may be reluctant to share bad news. But not knowing about struggles leaves parents unable to support their children where they need it.
Parents need to know if their child is behind and by how much? The larger the gap, the greater the effort that the teacher, child and parent will have to put forth to narrow or close it.
Teachers will want to be able to provide answers to the questions parents may ask once they are told of their child’s shortcomings: What is the school’s plan to address issues? Are there areas to work on at home? Are tutors available to fill learning gaps that may have grown in the past year? And if a child is ahead of other students, what is the school planning to do to help that child remain intellectually stimulated and challenged?
Now and post-pandemic, when much of the school experience will return to normal, let’s make parent-teacher conferences clearer discussions of student progress, with thoughtful planning to support and enrich students’ learning.
Pamela D. Brown is a clinical and school psychologist who works at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, a private Pre-K to 12 school in Philadelphia.
This story about parent-teacher conferences was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.