How to Handle Difficult Parent-Teacher Conferences

how to handle difficult parent teacher conferences


Parent-Teacher Conferences are upon us and while they can be very productive and positive, they can also be rather difficult for all involved. 

While some teachers may groan when conferences come around, I actually enjoy them. I find it helpful to meet a student’s parents and form a friendly and professional relationship with them and work together towards common goals. 

In a previous post, I offer helpful advice for creating positive Parent Teacher Conferences; but here, I’d like to offer some tips on how to handle difficult parent-teacher conferences. Below are several oft-used comments parents have offered during conferences. They can be complex, riddled with conflict, and difficult to navigate, but with some preparation and some deep breaths, they can absolutely be something you can handle with patience and grace.


“Your class is the only one he is struggling with. Why is that?”

Most of the time this information is sketchy at best, but if you don’t have the data in front of you, you cannot call parents on any untruths or exaggerations.  When this type of comment starts, I like to redirect to focus only on my particular class.  Do not get caught up in evaluating or comparing yourself to your colleagues.  In as logical a fashion as possible, go through the study habits, assessment scores, participation, and other information for the student and reinforce the homework/study expectations and any tutoring or office hours that you offer. Put it back on the student’s performance, attendance, and behavior. 


“She is just not interested in the books you are reading in your class.”

While I can empathize with students about this, I also know that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do, and reminding parents of this truth goes a long way if delivered correctly. This goes along with comments like, “Your class isn’t fun.” The expectation for teachers to be entertainers and make each day fun is unattainable. You can certainly make class more engaging and fun when you design lessons that are interactive and you display your own enthusiasm for what you’re teaching.  Show how excited you are about your curriculum and hope that the literature love is contagious. I like to tell my students that you may not love all of it, but surely you can find one small nugget that piques an interest, at the very least.


”He’s just not good at English.”

In all honesty, math teachers probably field this comment more than English teachers, but when this one comes up, just reassure parents that your job is to teach the students in front of you.  If they were already prodigies in English, they would not need your class.  Encourage parents to trust the process in order to improve skills regardless of natural ability or previous experience.


“She just doesn’t have time to study for your class because of ____ (sport, job, extra-curricular, etc.)”

Even though I want to stress the importance of academics over other commitments, I understand that there is value (and sometimes necessity) to activities outside the classroom. Empathize with this parent and give a few suggestions for balancing obligations, like coming in early before school to work on homework or using the Quizlet app to study on the bus to an away game.  The expectations and deadlines must be clear and consistent for all students, so be firm, yet understanding.  This is an important life skill for students to learn, and allow students to see your thought process behind this.


“He says you don’t like him.”

Often, this is said because you have had to redirect unacceptable behaviors, sent an email home, or have had to send the student to the office. In response to this, I like to say that while I can understand why he/she feels this way, it may be because they haven’t significantly changed or improved their behavior. The expectations for students remain the same and so does the teacher’s response, regardless of the frequency of the unacceptable behavior. Most often, students say this because they are unwilling to accept responsibility for their behavior and are deflecting the blame to the teacher.  


“She says everyone is failing.” 

Be careful, this parent is baiting you. Do not get caught up in comparing students or talking about class averages, which can get really ugly really fast. Reinforce the opportunities and criteria for success in your class. Refer back to the expectations of the course and keep bringing the conversation back to that particular student. 


“Can you call me every time he misses an assignment or gets below a B on an assessment?”

For any teacher, this is not a reasonable request.  With 34+ students per class, (which can equate to some 200 students) teachers simply do not have the time to make that many phone calls or compose that many emails. Not only do teachers not have time, it also undermines the student’s ability to self-regulate and stay organized themselves. In high school, this is when students are to utilize the soft skills (communication, organization, time management, etc.) they were taught in elementary school and middle school. If we do it for them, how will they practice and learn?  

Instead, intervene when you feel it’s necessary to help the student stay on track.   If the grades are kept online, inform them about the frequency of grade updates. Empower (and expect) that parents and students check grades themselves.  If you want to offer them some sort of additional aid without overextending yourself, offer to send a quick email check-in if the overall grade drops below a C.  Whatever you pick, be sure that it is something you can reasonably do that does inhibit the student’s ability to manage their own time. 

I hope you find these tips helpful as you navigate Parent-Teacher Conferences! Is there anything that you would add to this list?  Be sure to leave questions, comments, and suggestions.

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