Student-led conferences – a lesson in trust

Over the years, student-led conferences have become increasingly popular in schools.

Instead of the parents and teachers talking about the child while the child sits at home, the child is there not only to hear the conversation but, in theory, lead it.

Yet how often do the children get a choice in:

  • The artifacts they are proud of showcasing.
  • The activities they want to engage with.
  • The topics that will be discussed.

All too often it’s the teachers doing that heavy lifting. Leading to classroom learning programmes being disrupted in the name of ‘preparing the kids.’

A few days, later the universe answered my question.

I contracted shingles.

For two weeks prior to learning conferences, I had to sit at home.

Alongside the painful rash and fever, I spent a lot of time stressed about learning conferences. I put feedback on the child’s online learning portfolio, helpful comments in their writing.

Yet it never felt like enough.

  • I couldn’t help the children ‘tidy up’ their learning portfolios.
  • I couldn’t practice any of the activities with them.
  • I couldn’t even tidy up the classroom.

In short, I was not there to prepare the kids.

In fact, I wasn’t even in the room for learning conferences.

Out of all the challenges I’ve faced in my teaching career, it turned out not being in class for ten days was the hardest one.

Taryn Bond Clegg reminded us how easy it is for teachers to fall into old habits when deadlines loom.

We put pressure on ourselves and the children to perform at their very best.

What if ‘getting the best’ out of children in the moment robs them of their long-term best self.

When we insist that a child ‘tidy up’ their learning portfolio – do we forgo an honest conversation with the child about her organization?

When the activities need to be practiced in order to show their families, do parents leave with a genuine picture of the child and his progress?

When a child wants to share their handwriting instead of a piece of published writing are we denying an important opportunity to celebrate a success as well as develop a collective understanding of surface and deep features in writing?

Kath Murdoch describes part of the journey of being inquiry teacher involves unlearning beliefs and roles. For me, letting go of certainty of outcome and abandoning the role of being the superhero teacher is a lot easier to talk about in principle in the classroom than from my sickbed at home.

With the enhanced PYP there has an added impetus on teachers to cultivate a culture of agency in our class. Rather than merely learning to ‘let go’ of certainty teachers will need to learn to:

  • Trust that the classroom culture will support students to be the best version of themselves.
  • Trust the culture of your school that your co-workers will step up when needed.
  • Trust the relationships with your students’ families is based on mutual respect.

My class took my absence in the run-up to learning conferences all in their stride.  The students’ families were understanding through the process, sending get well messages and being patient with technical hiccups with the Skype.  My co-workers were fantastic at preparing the resources I sent through and getting the learning space set up cleaned up.

There were some children that could have done better if I had been there to give some last minute feedback. There were a few parents I needed to follow up with additional phone calls, meetings, and emails. One child agreed that the learning conference wasn’t reflective of who he was as a learner and decided to redo his conference at a later date.

And that’s all ok.

We don’t always master something the first time we try.

Rather than fixate on controlling for failure, maybe we as teachers need to spend energy helping our students and each other to recover from life’s mishaps and mistakes.

If student-led conferences are to be really authentic, schools need to let go of the idea of learning conferences being a once-a-year showcase. By treating conferences as an ongoing conversation about learning it would take a lot of pressure off teachers and children to ‘get it right.’

So as a final lesson in letting go, you need to acknowledge that you might need a hand getting back up.

2 thoughts on “Student-led conferences – a lesson in trust

Add yours

  1. What a fabulous post, Stephanie. You’re right that student-led conferences are becoming more common and there also seems to be a rise in anxiety from teachers about ‘not doing enough practice’ as if they were preparing for a school concert!

    I’m sorry to hear you were unwell but what a serendipitous event that turned out to be! It sounds like it was a worthwhile learning experience for everyone.

    By the way, I love how easy to read your posts always are. All the white space is so refreshing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kathleen
      Thanks for the lovely comment. I wonder if that one off really is an idea of learning as a performance rather than a process.

      I think the whole space came from your post on improving your blogging.



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