Key ways to ensure these essential check-ins are positive and productive for everyone during the coronavirus pandemic.

teacher waving at computer during virtual meeting

With so many gatherings and meetings shifting into the virtual world, the time-honored tradition of family-teacher conferences will also most likely need to be remote this school year. Perhaps your school community has already hosted a virtual back-to-school night or college fair. Whether you're able to video-chat with parents and guardians or need to rely on good old-fashioned phone calls, now is the time to consider what these important check-ins can look like -- and how to make them a positive communication tool -- during the coronavirus pandemic.

1. Be strategic with scheduling

For parents, guardians, teachers, and students alike, the challenge of scheduling and keeping track of virtual appointments can be a daunting one. Luckily, various tools and strategies can help you stay organized so you're not spending more time trying to line up meetings than you are actually participating in them. Check out the following tools to make that happen:

2. Be flexible with format

You've probably had Google Meets or Zoom calls freeze or glitch at some point this year, which was maybe due to a weak internet connection or software glitches. On top of potentially unreliable video-conferencing platforms, you shouldn't assume that students' households have a steady internet connection. After all, the digital divide remains a big issue across the country, and students may be participating in distance learning from wireless hot spots. So be flexible! Consider regular phone calls as an alternative. Plus, it's not safe to assume that parents and guardians will be comfortable using video conferencing, even if their internet connection and technology access are up to par.

3. Use screen sharing

If you're conducting a conference via video, consider sharing your screen! Just as you might enhance a classroom lecture or presentation with visuals, you can make online conversations more productive -- and interesting -- by showing samples of student work, district resources for remote and hybrid learning, or other information. Whether you're using Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, or another video-conferencing platform, screen sharing is a common feature and shouldn't be overlooked. Here's a list of dos and don'ts to further hone this strategy.

4. Assign prework

Family-teacher conferences can sometimes feel rote and impersonal, so why not gather some insights and questions from parents and guardians before the meeting? Doing this will allow for more fluid conversation starters, in addition to giving you a leg up on troubleshooting student challenges (if need be). Perhaps you could ask families about their perception of how their student is doing in class, or how they're handling remote or hybrid learning in their household. You could also invite questions from parents and guardians. Here are examples of some short surveys you could adapt.

5. Consider student-led conferences

Family-teacher conferences can take many forms. Depending on your school's conference expectations, you might be able to consider asking students to take the lead. After all, they're probably pretty confident navigating online meetings at this point. This article from Edutopia is full of resources to consider if you go the student-led route.

6. Offer training and resources

Many parents and guardians might still be struggling to navigate their students' learning management systems (LMS) (like Google Classroom, Seesaw, or ClassDojo). Your remote conference might be a perfect time to conduct a quick screen share (see tip No. 3) to explain how these platforms work. This article from EdSurge offers some other great ideas, including showing parents how to log on to the school website or navigate the school's media center, where the digital resources and databases too often go unexplained.

7. Remember first impressions

Though logging on to video chats has become second nature for many of us inside and outside the education field, this might be your first time interacting in this way with this particular audience: students' parents and guardians. So it's not a bad idea to spruce up your physical environment, consider the lighting, and test your internet connection, among other tips to ensure a positive first virtual impression.

Paul Barnwell

A New Hampshire-based handyman, writer, and hobby farmer, Paul Barnwell is a freelance contributor to Common Sense Education. Paul lived and taught high school English in Louisville, Kentucky, for 13 years, where he embraced bluegrass music, barbecue, and horse racing. He's been published in the Atlantic online, Education Week, and Harvard's Ed. magazine, among other outlets. Paul and his wife, Rebecca, now reside in central New Hampshire.