By Steve Fryling
Parents are likely to remember going to parent-teacher conferences, talking about the performance of the student and talking about ways to improve, with the parent and the student (if the student attended) being largely passive.
Things have changed with conferences at Sunset Elementary with the use of student-led conferences. In this style of conferencing, the student is given the role of conducting the conference. The student, who works from a set of steps set up in advance, leads the parent and teacher through the strengths and weaknesses of their performance and talks about how they plan to improve. According to Amie McCaw, Sunset Lake elementary principal, these conferences are an exercise in student leadership. “We want students to build the skills needed to be our future leaders. These skills include self-confidence, personal insight and the ability to effectively communicate. What better way to do this than by assigning the student the task of looking at their own performance, developing insights about it and then communicating that to teachers and parents?”
Students interviewed at Sunset Lake elementary felt that the conference style was helpful. McKenzie Pryor, a fourth-grade student of Tiffany Sadowski, says the conference forced her to prepare and listen to the teacher’s guidance in order to have a good conference. According to Sadowski, “They (the students) are able to show proof (via passed back papers, data charts they keep, tests etc.) of exactly how much or how little they have improved in all areas. They even rate and discuss their own behaviors often times being much more critical of themselves than I would be!” McKenzie’s mother has participated in both types of conferences and says that both types have their advantages. But she likes the student-led style because it gets her daughter to speak and ensures that information flows both ways, as well as helping her daughter cement in her mind what she needs to do to improve.
Even the youngest students try their hand at leadership. Koy Kovalska, a first grader with Aubrie Burns right before he went in to lead his conference, said he was nervous, but seemed ready to go. Koy’s mother, Kelly was excited to hear what he had to say, “This should be interesting,” she remarked beforehand. As the conference began, he started to describe how he was doing in the classroom, with some prompting and guidance from the teacher.
Burns goes on to say, “I think there are way more advantages. The kids were so proud of their accomplishments and it was amazing to see them excited to show their work. It was so cool to watch them explain all that we are doing in school. Plus, the conversations between the parents, students, and myself were so rich. It was a great experience. The only disadvantage is that some students were a bit shy, so it was a little nerve-wracking to get them going. However, every student was able to begin chatting, I just had to get them started.”
While many students and parents saw advantages to this method, others still see more room for growth. “Sometimes we as parents just need more time alone with the teacher,” says Jody Tuinier, parent of two Sunset students. “There are things I need to hear from a more technical point of view than my kids might provide. Also, sometimes I just need to talk to the teacher without my kids in the room so I can get a better perspective of what’s going on and how I can help at home.”