Reinventing the Family-Teacher interviews

It’s an all to familiar scene in schools across Australia: a parent or carer and teacher sit across from each other, ready to discuss goals needs and observations of the student within their short allotted time slot.

While the teacher tries to cram in all of the important information, the families takes in as much as possible, attempting to make sense of the jargon and what the data means. This leaves little time for valuable 2 way communication which enables effective partnerships to be developed, built or sustained.

Heather Weiss (2015) Director of the Harvard Family Research Project discusses how the research from the last five years suggests that the traditional family/teacher interview, is a necessary but insufficient model of sharing a student’s strengths and challenges.

"Family/teacher interviews are necessary, because family and teachers need to jointly share information about a student’s progress and plan future goals and actions, but insufficient because teachers and families need to build partnerships to support learning over time.

True family engagement is not a single event. It is a shared responsibility in which regular two-way communication insures that the student is on track to meet grade level requirements. It is founded on trust and mutual respect and acknowledges that all families have the goals, values, and skills to help their children succeed from preschool through high school, and beyond. Over the years, we have seen a number of interesting trends that re-imagine the family-teacher interview as a key building block for ongoing family engagement".

One trend is schools starting meaningful conversations with families even before children commence at the school. For example, transition programs are providing valuable opportunities to build relationships prior to the student attending school.

A second trend which is being seen that reinvents the family-teacher interview is schools focusing on sharing both student and school data, deepening the conversation on the child’s progress.

"The Academic Parent Teacher Team model, currently in the US, brings families and teachers together during three group meetings over the school year. Families acquire information about what and how their children are learning, data about classroom performance, and concrete activities -- some of which are suggested by fellow families -that they can do at home to help their child meet 60-day academic goals. Research shows that this extended form of the family-teacher interview has informed and improved the ways families help their children at home, strengthened the relationship between families and teachers, and increased student academic performance". (Weiss 2015)

A third trend which is being seen is one of schools and families continuing the conversation beyond the school gates and interviews by leveraging the use of technology. An interesting recent study out of the US by Matthew Kraft and Todd Rogers found that high school students in a specialised program, whose families received short, individualised messages from their teacher on a weekly basis, were more likely to receive credit towards graduation compared to students whose families did not receive messages. Another program, Message from Me in Pittsburgh, allows preschool children to send photos, audio messages, or emails to their families, communicating about their day through the use of technology in early childhood classrooms. The messages enable, families to what learning and activities have occurred throughout the day which enables specific questions to be asked later at home. This type of program addresses the challenges which surround questioning and answers such as “What did you do today?” “Nothing,” or, “I don’t know. I forget.” For families whose primary language is not English, this can be an especially effective way to share concrete information so they can follow-up in the home, a practice that is linked with school success.

A final trend is that meaningful communication is happening outside the school. Weiss (2015) describes one example of Home visits, and suggests these are an opportunity for families and teachers to get to know one another on the familieshome ground. In Weiss examples, "Home visits are often held twice a year and in some cases, supplemented by family dinners. Through these visits, teachers gain valuable insights into the child’s home and family, learn about the family’s goals and values, and the ways the family supports student learning at home, in school, and in the community. Families get to know the teacher and find out about the child’s learning goals in a more informal way. The visits signal that the school and teachers welcome families and this starts building the trust that enables families and teachers to work together on behalf of the child. Though these actions appear simple, home visits have been linked to improved student attendance, behavior, and test scores" in the US.

Weiss (2015) suggests the family-teacher interview is more likely to be meaningful and less scary and stressful when "families and teachers see it as part of an ongoing conversation throughout the year, one grounded in all kinds of data about student learning and progress.

No matter which side of the desk you happen to sit, reinventing the family-teacher interview as one step in a process that builds and strengthens the family-teacher relationship in support of children’s learning and development over the course of their school career".

Taken from Re-imagining the Parent/Teacher Conference, Harvard Family Research Project 2015