It's conference time again and I wanted to repeat this blog about holding conferences with parents of English language learners.
The increasing population of linguistically and culturally diverse students in our schools poses a challenge for classroom teachers who need to communicate with their families. Parents of English language learners may not be familiar with the practice of meeting with their child’s teacher and do not know what is expected of them during a parent-teacher conference. Many classroom teachers do not know how to communicate with parents who do not speak English and who are not familiar with U.S. school practices. The goal of this blog is to help you hold productive parent-teacher conferences.
Conferences with parents of English language learners (ELLs) require preparation. First, you need to determine whether a translator is needed. Many parents do not speak English well enough to understand what you are saying so it is important to the success of a conference to contact a translator for parents who need one. If your school does not provide translators, ask parents to bring a bilingual family member. Siblings, or worse yet, the child herself, should never be used to translate for the parents. When a translator is needed, the meeting time should be lengthened to ensure that there is enough time for the teacher to provide information and answer questions. Assemble samples of the student’s work to share with parents. Have a solid understanding of the student’s current English proficiency level and prepare to provide samples of this during the meeting. Try to schedule the conferences so that both parents can attend. In some cultures, the father must be included since no important decisions are made without his agreement.
You want body language to reflect a receptive attitude. Walk to the door of your classroom to greet parents as they come into your room just as you would greet guests in your home. Do not greet them from across the room behind your desk. Don't make assumptions about the parents’ name. The U.S. custom of birth name, then family name is not universal. Learn how names are used in the cultures of your school. Children may not have the same name as their mother even though the mother and father are married. Korean and Chinese women do not take their husband’s name but retain their own family name. Children from Spanish-speaking families may have a given name followed by two surnames. The first surname is the father’s family name, and the second one is the mother’s family name. Some parents will hyphenate the double name. Others will Americanize their names so you need to ask what name they want to be called.
There are diverse cultural norms about whom it is appropriate to touch in different cultures. Although many people have adopted the Western manner of shaking hands, in some cultures this manner of greeting is not appropriate. Asian women, for example, do not generally shake hands. A male teacher would not touch or shake hands with a Muslim woman. People from Thailand and India greet each other by clasping their hands together. When in doubt, wait and see if the parent offers his/her hand first.
Consider the physical set-up of your conference space. A face-to face setting may be too confrontational for parents of some cultures. Arrange chairs so that your body is at a 45-degree angle to the parents. Place the parent between yourself and the translator.
During the conference you should speak in short uncomplicated sentences and stop so that the translator can translate for parents every few sentences. If you do not stop speaking every few sentences, your whole message will not be conveyed. Do not use educational jargon. Avoid speaking directly to the translator. Include the parent in the conversation. When you ask the parent questions, give the translator time to talk to the parents.
It is imperative for you not to misinterpret parents’ meaning if they don’t make eye contact. In the U.S we feel that someone who doesn’t look us in the eye is untrustworthy. People from some cultures consider making eye contact confrontational. Sitting at a 45-degree angle to the parent helps minimize the amount of eye contact.
An important area for misunderstandings is in the attitude of different cultures toward time. The U.S, Canada and northern European countries see time as being highly structured, logical, exact, and sequential. We are monochronic. People from South and Central America, Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries, Asia, Middle East, Southern Europe and Africa like to keep their time unstructured. They are polychromic. To a monochron, time is exact and being late is both rude and disrespectful. To a polychron, the time set for a meeting is just an approximation. If parents arrive at a meeting 45 minutes after the appointed time, it is because arriving up to 45 minutes after the designated time is not considered late.
When parents are actively involved in the education of their children, those children are more likely to make good grade and test higher on standardized tests. They will attend school more regularly, be less likely to drop out. This is a worthy goal that teachers can strive for when they have effective conferences with the parents of English language learners.