Online Parent-Teacher Conferences

from Educators' eZine

Going Online to End the Parent-Teacher Conference Logjam

At Poly Prep's Parent-Teacher Conferences, parents meet face to face with each teacher for six minutes. We have always valued the one-on-one contact between teachers and parents even for a relatively brief meeting. It is a chance to exchange meaningful information on learning, behavior, and overall class performance, benefiting both parties and providing the personal feedback parents appreciate.

Unfortunately, the signup process leading to the conferences has been problematic. Parents arrived at school and signed up manually on each teacher's door. After walking about the building to sign up, they then had to circle back for conferences. The process, especially for parents with two or three children at the school, was overwhelming. Additionally, as the ebb and flow of arriving parents was unpredictable and uncontrollable, often there weren't any available timeslots. When conferences were missed or ran over, the backlog quickly became a nightmare, with parents arguing in the hallways over who went next. Parents would arrive during meals or breaks, and become frustrated that the closest available slot was an hour or more away. Due to these reasons, parents often entered the actual conferences visibly frustrated and harried, not conducive to establishing good parent-teacher rapport.

Parent frustration had a clear and negative impact on the conferences and teachers felt this stress on what was already a difficult day. In addition, they didn't know who would show up or when. When parents did sign up, they sometimes used different last names, adding to the confusion. With parents backed up outside their doors waiting for a "brief chat," teachers felt rushed and pressured to surrender their breaks to desperate parents.

Administratively, it was difficult to determine how many parents had attended and which teachers they had visited without manually counting, and it was difficult to predict who was going to attend beyond using some rudimentary guesswork based on past years' attendance. In the fifth and sixth grade, critical transition years, parents called ahead to schedule conferences. This was possible given the small size of these grades (only 150 students), and by the way the conferences are scheduled. Though this eased the burden on parents and teachers, it consumed staff time for the better part of two weeks. In grades seven through twelve, with over 600 students and 100 different teachers, this task would be impossible. When the day arrived, staff struggled to keep everyone on task and on time. We desperately needed a better solution.

For a once-a-year event, however, it seemed risky to introduce new processes that would be met with resistance, particularly if requiring investments in time and energy. Since any change would affect three distinct constituencies — parents, teachers, and administrators — the task seemed more daunting. Discussions of how to address this problem quickly led to technology and we sought out online signup possibilities. Starting with the notion of using our existing website, we quickly moved to a complete online web-based signup solution.

As the idea of online sign-ups began to emerge as a possible solution, various members of the school community began to resist. This resistance manifested itself in mostly indirect or imagined dangers, and focused on reliability and usability issues. Commonly-asked questions were: "What if the program doesn't work?" and "Who would be responsible for technical support and assisting the parents?". Others maintained that "Most parents won't want to use it".

There were several keys to successfully addressing this resistance. Strong support from the Head of School and leadership from two administrators who actively led the change were essential. The success of this approach was based in: Systematically allowing time for extensive trouble-shooting; including a wide variety of voices at the implementation table from the Head of School on down; and being patient and prepared for dealing with the resistance that was rooted in the response to "change" rather than in substantive issues.

Eventually, we deployed an online conference sign-up program. We felt it would offer a number of advantages because:

  • Parents managed their own accounts, including usernames, passwords, and biographical information (for themselves and their children), reducing the likelihood we would be overwhelmed by tech support requests.
  • It easily allowed parents to schedule meetings which fit their schedule, request telephone or Email contact, and print out their schedule and the conference room map, reducing the centralization and check in process we normally had to manage.
  • It spread parent conferences out over available times. In past years, parents just showed up; and we often had too many parents at one time and not enough time slots for them to meet with teachers. They became frustrated, had to wait during meals, asked teachers to meet during break times, etc. Often, parents entered a teacher conference agitated.
  • It was easier and more equitable for the many parents who live farther away, as they could schedule conferences two weeks in advance from the comfort of home.
  • The system automatically Emails schedules and reminders, cutting back on received calls.
  • The system sped up check-in time, because parents already had lists of teachers and a location map. Approximately ten parents arrived without having previously signed up for conferences, representing less than two percent of parents.

Parents without Internet access were asked to call and we set up the conference for them.

Our new system worked on multiple levels and our assumptions proved correct. We had incredibly positive feedback. One parent wrote that "this was not just a good idea but a fabulous one." Another excitedly commented that "the system worked GREAT! Parents were not racing from room to room trying to get appointments." The consensus was that "the system worked perfectly and was painless" and "that it beats the hell out of running around frantically putting one's name on sign-up sheets."

Teachers also loved the new system. They were able to view their schedules over the course of the two-week sign-up period, which listed both parent and child names, allowing time to organize materials in the order needed. Many teachers commented specifically on this feature, a factor that wasn't a consideration of ours in making this switch. Throughout the signup process we could address mistakes in signups, with teachers able to check their signups from the start. Most importantly, teachers found that because parents had scheduled ahead of time, they arrived much happier and less frazzled. The less frantic pace seemed to allow more focus on the actual conversation and not on the scheduling.

Administratively, the system worked wonders. The database-driven program produces a variety of reports based on various parameters, such as teacher schedules and free slots, parent schedules, parents with duplicate time slots or teachers scheduled, and other helpful ones. We could easily lock out breaks and meal times, and also quickly Email and reschedule parents if unanticipated issues arose. We had record numbers of parents attend, and yet the day was smoother then ever.

Often, technology is introduced to the classroom or to the administrative offices first, in anticipation of productivity and educational gains, but in this case, a specific problem was addressed through application of technology and technological processes. Generally, this direction makes the most sense, but in our rush to utilize the newest technology, we often reverse the situation, falling into the "if you build it, they will come" fallacy.

Ultimately, the technology helped impact not only the scheduling, but the quality of the conferences themselves. Both teachers and parents reporting feeling more at ease and less harried, allowing the focus to be where it should be, on the students. The transition from a manual signup process to the online program raised the belief in the competency and effectiveness of technology. It took a bit of a leap of faith, but we encourage you to take the initative and use it next year. After all, technology is supposed to make our lives simpler and better, and in this case, it did.

Email:Andrew J. Katz