The New York Times has an article about the rush and frenzy of parent-teacher conferences. At Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the yellow tape in the lobby was cut at exactly 1 p.m.; parents made a dash for the stairs in order to reach their appointment locations. (Apparently they made appointments in advance but had to traverse considerable distances from one appointment to the next.) The conferences themselves were no more than five minutes long. Other schools enforced a limit of three minutes per conference.
Are these rushed official parent-teacher conferences needed? Or rather, are they what’s needed?
At the elementary school level, the conferences are often less hectic, because students might have the same classroom teacher for English, math, and even social studies. Except for the “cluster” teachers, most teachers have a small or moderate student load. In high school, each teacher may have 170 students or more. In a school with high parent involvement, it’s difficult to fit all conferences in, so the strict time limits (often enforced by student patrols) become the norm.
I propose a different system.
Consider that some parents come with specific questions and concerns, while others (often the majority) wish to greet the teachers, meet them for the first time, or exchange a few informal words in person.
One parent-teacher night per semester could take the form of a reception. Teachers would greet parents, give a short presentation with Q & A, and talk informally (without privacy).
Then there would be other established times over the course of the year (within or close to the edges of the school day) when parents could come in to speak with teachers one on one. These would be announced at the start of the school year so that everyone could plan.
Some might worry that the individual conferences would add to teachers’ already overloaded schedules. To the contrary: they could end up relieving teachers somewhat. Under the current system, parents and teachers must make any individual appointments at their mutual convenience; there are no prearranged slots for this. Sometimes the appointment takes place before 8 a.m., or between two classes, or during lunch. Sometimes the very scheduling takes more time than the appointment itself (lots of back-and-forth negotiation, cancellation, rescheduling, etc.). If there were a few prearranged appointment times, then parents and teachers would not have to worry about scheduling them; they’d just show up.
Of course, there would still be a need for some spontaneous and emergency meetings. But the non-emergency meetings (which are just as important) would have an allocated time. There would be room to discuss how to help students in need of greater challenge, or students with specific needs. Students could take part in and even initiate the conferences.
Also, such meetings wouldn’t necessarily revolve around report cards. Students, parents, and teachers could look over tests, essays, homework, projects, lessons, and more. They could discuss the concepts of the lessons as well as the students’ performance.
In short, you could meet students’ needs without the stampedes.