Q&A: Dealing with Difficult Parent Teacher Conferences

Targeted News Service

WASHINGTON, April 26 -- Running successful parent-teacher conferences can involve dealing with difficult parents and having challenging conversations. Douglas J. Fiore is an author of several books on the topic, including "Dealing with Difficult Parents: And With Parents in Difficult Situations." 

Fiore has served in a number of roles in public education, from classroom teacher to principal to working in the Virginia Department of Education. He will be covering effective skills in an upcoming webinar, "Difficult Parent Teacher Conferences: How to Handle Any Parent or Topic" on Tuesday, May 4 from 1 to 2 p.m. ET, hosted by Progressive Business Publications. 

The following is an interview with Fiore: 

TNS: How do most parent-teacher difficulties in conference situations arise? 

Fiore: More than anything, these difficulties arise out of poor communication. Teachers typically are not trained in understanding when to listen. Parent-teacher conferences provide precious few minutes for communication, and teachers have lots of information to share. However, parents arrive at these conferences with needs to. The balance of two-way communication almost always is at the root of difficulties in these conferences. 

TNS: Is it more than just a disparity between classroom expectations? 

Fiore: Yes! The disparities, while they do exist, are often blown out of proportion by poor word choice, insufficient explanation of expectations, and lack of strong listening skills. 

TNS: How hard is it to learn when to listen as a teacher, whose job could be seen as primarily involving explanations and lectures? 

Fiore: It really isn't difficult at all. I have trained thousands of educators in communication techniques, building strong relationships with parents, and holding effective conferences. The more important question is: "How often are teachers presented with opportunities to learn how to listen to adults?" 

TNS: It sounds like there are a number of emotional considerations that a teacher has to apply. Are there physical ones, such as arranging a classroom or seating in a particular way? 

Fiore: There are many physical considerations. Arranging the classroom and the seating in an inviting way is important, but so are the teacher's non-verbal communication skills. This is an important part of what I try to teach and role-play for teachers. 

TNS: Is there a "happy medium" of parental involvement in education? Have you experienced situations where parents have been over-involved? 

Fiore: There is certainly a happy medium, but it cannot be defined out of context. So much depends on the community, it's culture, and the training of the school staff. I have experienced many situations in which parents were over-involved, and there are simple techniques for helping these parents understand how to develop a more appropriate role. We need to help parents define "parent involvement." 

TNS: Are there other situations where you feel that your parent-teacher conference advice might apply? 

Fiore: Parent-teacher conferences are just a small, specific example of the bigger picture of appropriate communication with parents. I focus on the conferences because so many schools ask for help in this specific area. However, the advice really proves useful in all parent interactions. 

TNS: How applicable is your advice to larger environments? 

Fiore: One's communication patterns change as the audience size changes, but the general techniques remain the same. As such, the basic tenets of communicating appropriately with parents work for one-on-one interactions between teachers and parents, but they work equally well when addressing a group of several hundred parents. 

TNS: Is there a guiding thought or mantra that you think teachers would benefit from, when considering how to promote a positive environment in parent conferences? 

Fiore: At the risk of over-simplifying, I am reminded of a quote that was hung in an antique frame in my living room when I was a child. Many have laid claim to the quote, but I have never authenticated its source. It says, "A wise old owl lived in an oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can't we be like that old bird?" Less metaphorically, I would simply remind teachers that parents, even difficult ones, are partners. They are the best parents our students have, and it is our responsibility to work cooperatively with them for the benefit of our students. 

Register for the upcoming webinar at http://www.pb-conferences.com/1X8/0/2/p3LPNHc/p4YMV939i/p0e/. 


Zaher Karp is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.