But What Do I Say? - ASCD
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June 1, 2009

But What Do I Say?

Teachers are far more likely to find the right words in sensitive parent-teacher conferences when they've had a chance to rehearse.

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John Smith, a 15-year-old student who is interested in music, has started avoiding the band room. He's wary of that side of the school and asks his mother to drop him off each morning near a different entrance. His mother, Jenny, doesn't think anything of this—until she notices the tear in his new jacket and the dark bruise on his neck. Confronting him one evening, she learns that three upperclassmen are bullying him, teasing him about being "gay." John breaks down in embarrassed tears at the kitchen table. His mother cries with him, not knowing how to best protect her son while he's at school. She subsequently requests a conference with John's homeroom teacher, Ms. Laffett.

Ms. Laffett is a young teacher who recently received her teaching certificate. She loves the pace of her job and thrives on the challenge of teaching English to teenagers, but she has no idea what to say when Mrs. Smith comes in for a conference. She studied discrimination as it related to social justice during her teacher education program, and she knows that bullying is wrong, but what should she do? Also, how should John's assumed sexuality fit into the conversation? And most significant, why wasn't she taught how to engage in sensitive conversations with parents?

Make It Real

Although most teacher education programs recognize the importance of school-home communication and involving parents in their children's education, many fail to show teachers just exactly how to make these connections. This is especially important, given the great diversity among students, not only in terms of such characteristics as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, but also in terms of such diverse family configurations as blended families, foster care, and same-sex parents. Consequently, novice teachers often learn the hard way—by suffering through difficult parent-teacher conferences in which neither parents nor teachers have the skills necessary to talk, listen, and really hear one another.

There are more effective ways to help young teachers learn about communicating with diverse parent and student groups. The Parent/Caregiver Conferencing Model is a semester-long teacher-development intervention designed to provide pre- and inservice teachers with multiple opportunities to practice communicating with parents. The model hinges on simulated parent-teacher conferences between participating teachers and standardized parents.

The concept of a standardized parent is derived from medical education's use of standardized patients, in which local actors are trained to portray patients with distinct symptoms, providing physicians and nurses the opportunity to practice their communication and diagnostic skills. Similarly, the Parent/Caregiver Conferencing Model enlists actors to portray parents during simulated parent-teacher conferences.

The expression standardized parents does not mean to imply that parents are all the same. Instead, the actors' verbal and nonverbal actions are standard and consistent for each specific role; multiple teachers interact with multiple actors but still experience the same simulated parent-teacher context.

  • Supporting a parent whose son is experiencing harassment and bullying.

  • Brainstorming management strategies for a student's tendency to daydream in class, talk too often with peers, and generally operate off task.

  • Discussing a mother's concerns regarding how her daughter should best balance potentially competing school and work responsibilities.

  • Addressing a father's concern for his daughter, who has removed herself from her peer groups and is acting uncharacteristically withdrawn.

  • Working with a parent who strongly disagrees with the teacher's choice of assigned books, preferring that students not be exposed to readings of this sort.

  • Collaborating with a mother of an autistic son as he enters an inclusive classroom for the first time.

<P ID="article">In preparation for each of these cases, participating teachers receive background information on the student in question and the reason for the parent-teacher conference. The teachers are not told what to say or do, however. Instead, they are encouraged to conduct their conferences according to their best professional judgment. In contrast, the standardized parents are carefully trained on exactly what to say and how to say it. (Watch a <XREF TARGET="video">video example</XREF> of a simulated conference.)

Challenged to Respond

One of the simulated parent-teacher conferences deals with our opening scenario concerning Jenny Smith and her bullied son. The actress plays a concerned mother who is unsure of how to best protect her son. She is polite to the teacher, but she sits with her arms crossed and appears to be nervous. She tells each teacher what John told her about the harassment and how the bullies keep referring to him as "gay." During the conference, she asks plainly, "What can the school do to stop this harassment and bullying without embarrassing John?" and "Where do we go from here? Is there a nondiscriminatory policy in place at this school?" This opportunity, in which novice teachers communicate with a stranger without being able to rely on textbooks or instructors for proper professional responses, serves as a ripe forum for teacher learning about parent-teacher communications.

Each simulated parent-teacher conference is recorded using a Web camera. As teachers watch their recordings, they target one communication skill to focus on during the next simulation, such as intentionally asking more questions or paraphrasing the parent's thoughts, ideas, and feelings to ensure the appropriateness of their response. The teachers also identify professional questions that arose during the simulation—such as, What should I say to a parent who mentions the sexual orientation of her son or daughter?—which become fodder for subsequent whole-class debriefings.

To date, preservice teachers in Syracuse University's School of Education have participated in the program. Novice teachers in rural, suburban, and urban school districts in the greater central New York region have also taken part in a two-simulation version of the model. Across 271 simulated parent-teacher conferences with 141 teachers, we saw strong evidence of improved teacher sensitivity to parents' perspectives and concerns and improved communication skills. 1

What the Teachers Learned

The teachers who interacted in the simulated conferences with Jenny Smith reflected afterward that the scenario felt realistic and familiar. Several recalled friends from their own high school experience who had been bullied about being gay. "It hit home," one teacher noted.

The simulations also made the teachers more aware of the gaps in their own knowledge. Wrestling with the proper steps to take, one teacher, "Ms. Laffett," said,I guess I'm just not really sure what the procedures are for bullying. Because that's abuse, do I have to report that? I'm just not sure if it needs to be a step above "being on the look out" to, instead, actually documenting it.

Another teacher mentioned that she really didn't know what else to do about the bullying, other than to tell those in authority. One novice teacher recalled that she'd told the "parent" that she would tip off the guidance counselor. "But I don't really know if that's what you should do," she said. She also explained that she didn't know how to answer the question about school policy.

  • Listen well, regardless of the situation.

  • Balance constructive critiques with positive comments about the student.

  • Make parents feel welcomed and relaxed. Parents are not on their turf; they may feel anxious or nervous.

  • Inform parents that you, the teacher, will take notes during the conference so you can carefully address each of their concerns.

  • Be cool and calm in everything you say and do. Your tone of voice and mannerisms can escalate or deescalate parent-teacher interactions.

  • Be deliberate and realistic in what you promise a parent. Remember that you cannot feasibly call or e-mail several parents or caregivers every day.

  • Collect data on what you say. Take note of how many questions you ask, how often you offer the parent encouragement, and how often you emphasize the ideas or suggestions that the parent brings to the conference.

  • At all costs, do not use your authority as a teacher as a means of forcing your point of view.

  • Interact with parents or caregivers to learn more about the student and to understand how the parent has been successful or unsuccessful with that student at home.

  • Understand your role as a teacher and have a working knowledge of how other school professionals can support parents and students. Generic referrals to "seeing a guidance counselor" are not always necessary or appropriate.

  • Conduct the conference in a warm, enthusiastic, and professional way. Teachers who appear apathetic, aloof, or begrudging will seldom foster successful relationships with parents and caregivers.

What We Learned

  • Parents and teachers may begin a conference from divergent perspectives. The teacher may be unaware of classroom issues that are of concern to the student or parents. Conversely, the teacher may be concerned about classroom issues that the parent sees as unimportant.

  • Many teachers lack adequate preparation on how to deal with negative social interactions in the classroom; they may feel uncomfortable intervening in areas that seem personal or beyond their sphere of influence. Although concerned about the bullying scenario, most of the teachers didn't really know what to say to Jenny Smith. They had difficulty identifying specific solutions and, instead, generically noted that they would "keep an eye on John." In addition, instead of looking at a more systematic approach to resolving the problem, the teachers tended to place most of the responsibility on the student himself, emphasizing how he might change his own behavior to avoid harassment.

  • Many of the teachers were not well versed about school policies related to bullying and harassment and often didn't know whether such policies even existed in the school. They were also unclear about the difference between "typical" student conflict and the more serious bullying or harassment. Should teachers say something if a student calls another student a name? What exactly should they say? Will addressing the issue make it worse? Are certain forms of bullying or teasing intolerable, whereas others are dismissible? Teachers were unsure how bad the situation had to be before it demanded a powerful and unified response. They tended to minimize the problem or localize it—as in, this is something that only happens "in gym" or "with a few specific boys."

  • Teachers usually deferred to a "professional other"—such as a guidance counselor, assistant principal, or gym teacher—as a first step in stopping the bullying. Overwhelmed by the instructional, curricular, and assessment demands of their jobs, the teachers frequently did not feel able to devote additional energy and attention to resolving problematic social interactions. Moreover, teachers often found these situations unsettling; many identified with the case, remembering their own past experiences with school harassment as well as the feelings of hopelessness and isolation that accompanied those incidents.

  • The addition of sexual orientation complicated the issue. The teachers wondered whether being bullied about being gay was any different from being bullied about one's race, weight, or academic achievement. Did it demand a different response and, if so, what response?

Implications for Practice

For Preservice Teachers

Preservice teachers need deliberately scaffolded experiences that balance action and reflection. It may be beneficial to supplement traditional field experiences and classroom learning with carefully structured clinical practice and feedback.

Preservice teachers should also have the opportunity to develop their skills over time. One-shot lessons on the importance of parent-teacher communication and single-session approaches to simulated interactions do not promote deliberate learning and skill development. Moreover, teachers need to practice and experiment with specific responses to situations and concerns raised within specific parent-teacher interactions.

For Teachers and Administrators

It's important to recognize that if a student is unsafe or feels unsafe, the whole school has a problem. Teachers and administrators should receive training and practice in identifying and understanding what bullying looks like in the school. They need to develop a finely tuned awareness of the often subtle ways that oppression occurs, understanding that important things are happening that may be completely invisible to them.

Teachers and administrators must resist the temptation to minimize the gravity of bullying behaviors and must see beyond individuals as the "victims" or "perpetrators." They need to understand the systemic nature of oppressive behavior and commit to developing schoolwide approaches that include all school personnel in solving the problem.

For example, when working with a concerned parent, the teacher should listen well and make notes about the exact nature of the bullying—who is involved, how many times it has happened, and so on. This issue is extremely emotionally laden; empathetic and caring listening—as well as acknowledging the appropriateness and importance of the parent's distress—will be of the utmost importance. It is also essential to acknowledge parents' willingness to share personal or sensitive information; this takes trust on their part. Teachers should indicate that this information will be kept confidential.

Teachers should not simply refer the parents to another professional in the school, such as the principal or guidance counselor, but they should take responsibility for personally connecting the concerned parent with the appropriate school personnel. With bullying, for example, teachers should follow up with the school administration and school safety/resource officer. They should also contact the student's assigned guidance counselor as well as the teacher in closest proximity to where the bullying occurred. It's essential to clearly communicate to the parent how the teacher and the school will remain in contact. Teachers should establish a close time frame for a follow-up phone call to the parent to report progress in terminating the bullying or harassment.

Finally, both teachers and administrators should commit to working on any personal beliefs or lack of knowledge that may interfere with their ability to be good problem solvers regarding bullying and harassment, particularly around such identity issues as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. Continuing education and awareness are essential to the process. Teachers might want to gather information on dealing with issues of sexual orientation from theGay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network; ASCD's network onLesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Allied Issues in Education; or schools that have already establishedGay-Straight Alliances or other programs combating homophobia and harassment.

Teachers will benefit from learning a range of strategies for addressing oppressive behaviors in the classroom and school. Making a commitment "to say something if I see that behavior" is inadequate unless teachers have practiced specific things to say and do.

A More Effective Pedagogy

The Parent/Caregiver Conferencing Model is not simple role-playing, in which participants who know each other well take a "wink-and-nod" approach as they sit across from one another in conversation. Instead, the teachers in the program step into conference rooms, shake hands with complete strangers, confront authentic questions and challenges, navigate professional situations, and reflect on their recorded videos with peers who faced the same standardized parent.

The Parent/Caregiver Conferencing Model does not allow the novice teacher to rely on "time-outs," consultations with textbooks, or overly generic professional reflections. The standardized parents, like real parents, want answers, expect competence, respond to teachers' body language, and react to tones of voice. Teachers experience the simulations much like novice teachers experience real-world public school interactions; they are nervous and disequilibriated as they focus on being responsive in their communications with parents and caregivers.

This kind of pedagogy moves beyond simply acknowledging the importance of parent communication. Instead, teachers have opportunities to practice what to say and how to say it.

Simulated parent/teacher conferences give teachers an opportunity to practice interacting with parents.

<NOTE>Video courtesy of Standardized Parent Conferencing Model (SPCM). All rights reserved.</NOTE>

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End Notes

1 For more information about this model, see Dotger, B., Harris, S., &amp; Hansel, A. (2008). Emerging authenticity: The crafting of simulated parent-teacher candidate conferences. Teaching Education, 19(4), 335–347.

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