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A parent-teacher interview (also a parent-teacher conference and parents' evenings in the UK) is a once per term, short conference between students' parents and teachers. The interview is a chance for parents to meet their child's teachers and review any issues or concerns the parents or teachers may have with child/student's performance. These interviews are usually between five to fifteen minutes long. Parent-teacher interviews are a tradition in Western school systems (notably Australia, Canada, the UK (where they're known as parents' evenings) and the United States). A video example can be seen here. In the United States, many elementary schools will shorten the school day by 2–3 hours (often for an entire week) in mid fall to allow extra time for teachers to give these conferences.
Current Practice in Australia
Parent-teacher interview practice in Australian schools varies considerably from school to school and state to state. Each state has its own education system which may or may not mandate requirements for interviews to be conducted. Non-government schools may be controlled to some extent by federal and state education laws they operate independently in many respects including parent-teacher interviews.
Some schools have just one round of interviews per year, others have several. Two rounds is common, with terms 1 (Feb-April) and 3 (July–September) being popular times. Many schools offer multiple dates, sometimes splitting interviews by year level or by name (e.g. a-k/l-z).
There is often keen demand by parents for times with teachers, though a common observation from teachers is that it's the parents who they don't need to see who attend interviews, while parents who should attend often don't.
Booking Methods for Parent Teacher Interviews
One of the main barriers to attendance is the presence of and effectiveness of some kind of booking system.
- Some schools have a Free-for-all approach where parents just turn up and line up to see each teacher they want to see, an exercise that can be very frustrating and time-consuming for parents.
- Other schools provide bookings via phone or in person at the school administration office, but this creates a "traffic jam" of people and/or phone calls.
- Most schools have traditionally used the manual, piece of paper system where students are given a booking sheet which they take around to their teachers. Teachers have their own booking sheet and they allocate times that are still available to each student, marking the time on both sheets. Parents usually have the option of indicating which teachers they wish to see and the preferred times. While this manual system has been widely used for many years it has several major drawbacks that significantly reduce its effectiveness and create a drain on school resources:
- Teachers are already very busy and are usually required to make bookings with students during break times. Teachers who want (or need) to preserve their break times end up by necessity avoiding students, so students are unable to see the teachers they need to see and parents don't get the bookings they need.
- Parents don't have direct access to the teachers' free time list and often get times that aren't suitable or optimal. Booking schedules are controlled and therefore optimised from the point of view of the teacher, not the parent. This apparent optimisation ignores the fundamental fact that it is the parent (not the school) who knows when he/she is available to attend the event.
- The whole process relies on the students to do the booking, so if a student doesn't want his/her parent to see teachers, all he/she has to do is not make bookings, or leave it so late that there are no times available. Many parents don't even know about the event or find out about it after it's all over.
- It is difficult or impossible to measure the effectiveness of the event via any statistics or analysis.
- On-line booking systems have become more widely available as internet access and usage becomes pervasive. Schools who implement an on-line booking system often see even greater demand than usual as many parents are now able to make bookings who were previously hindered simply by the ineffective or non-existent booking process. This can place extra strain on the logistics of the event, for example, how long teachers should be available after hours. However it is generally viewed as advantageous if this time is well-used meeting with parents rather than being sparsely attended and hence wasting much valuable time. A well-designed on-line booking will as a minimum be secure, easy to use and easy to manage. Features offered by more advanced systems include:
- Optimised bookings where the system chooses the best sequence of times to allow the parent to see the required teachers within an overall time-frame that is suitable to the parent, rather than the parent simply choosing individual times to see teachers (although the latter method should always be available).
- Flexible schedules for interviews. Schools often required interviews over multiple days, based on year/grade, boarder/day students or other factors. There may even be a need for different length interviews for different grades/classes/days.
- Regular space time slots for teachers that allow meetings to get back on schedule if required.
- Spacer time slots or an optional 'gaps' setting that allow parents to prevent back-to-back bookings, thus helping on-time-running of interviews (parents have time to get to the next interview on time).
- Missed bookings where a parent can indicate to the school that he/she wanted to see a certain teacher but couldn't, either because the teacher was fully booked or none of the remaining available times was suitable. This allows the school to capture this information to help better manage subsequent interview events, and to contact parents where necessary.
- Statistical analysis of bookings allowing optimisation of the booking process during the booking period, and analysis after interviews have completed.
- Centrally scheduled booking systems (batch scheduled). These systems shift control of the booking process to a certain extent away from parents and back to the school with a priority-based, multi-phase process. Parents place booking requests on-line for the teachers they want to see (in order of their priority), together with their time availability. The school / software then schedules all requests as a whole. This results in parents getting to see their top priority teachers, but potentially missing out on 'lower-priority' bookings. This is trade-of is in contrast to first-in-first-served on-line bookings, where early booking parents get the bookings they need and those bookings are 'locked-in'. Once the overall batch produced interview schedule is published by the school—i.e. the school must relay this information securely to all parents, telling them which interviews they did and didn't get. Parents may then go on-line for a second round of bookings to make changes or (new) late bookings, or presumably to try to book those low-priority teachers they missed out on in the first round. Centrally scheduled systems also claim to improve the issue of core subject teachers being always over booked, as a parent priority system means these teachers are only booked out by 'high level' parent priority requests, but the end result can be overly complex for both schools to manage, and for parents who first have to prioritise one teacher over another (when they are all 'important') and then go through multiple phases of bookings and communication with the school.
Requirements in Ontario, Canada
Parent-teacher interviews are mandatory for all Ontario (Canada) elementary and secondary school teachers. Parents have the right to be allotted time for this purpose under the Ministry of Education.
Canadian Living criticizes parent-teacher interviews for their class bias. Often only the most privileged children's parents will attend the interviews and the children more likely to need extra assistance will not have their parents attend.
Parents sometimes complain schedules are not running on time, causing them to miss interviews, or be cut short. This is usually due to either parents or teachers electing to continue talking beyond their booked time slot. One factor that naturally reduces this effect is the presence of another parent ready to start the next interview and clearly in view of the teacher. There are several other options that can assist on-time running of events:
- Bell, chime or electronic voice-over automatically played over the school PA system, at each change of interview time. (E.g. "Please move to your next interview")
- Large clock display projected on the hall screen, ensuring there is no doubt of the exact time, and encouraging participants to be mindful of the time.
- Strongly reminding, and encouraging teachers to stick to advertised times.
- Steering away from very short interview times, which are harder to maintain on-time running (e.g. 5 minutes), in favour of slightly longer duration interviews that may better suit the time required to talk about issues. Short durations like five minutes ensure more can fit into the event, yet if on-time running fails, the benefit is lost.
- Provision of spacer interview slots at intervals for all teachers with busy schedules, to act as a time buffer - assisting in bringing events back onto time if they are running over.
- Systems that offer optimised scheduling of interviews can provide significantly more compact parent schedules. Parents then have reason to finish their current conversation on time, namely to get to their own next meeting. The natural tendency is often for parents stay longer at an interview, which may be acceptable if both the parent and the teacher don't have another interview immediately following. Optimised parent schedules are also beneficial to the parents by reducing time on-site, and by significantly reducing numbers of idle parents (event congestion).
Parent-teacher interviews are slightly moving more towards electronic organizational services in the same vein as other educational services and functions. This is similar to other trends in education such as blended learning. Where a parent was unable to attend a face-to-face interview at an organised school event, or was unable to see some teachers due to demand, interviews can be carried out over the phone or via common video conferencing systems, like Google Voice or Skype.