Empowering Students Through Student-Led Conferences (Megan Weary)

One teacher.  One idea.

“I want my students to be able to visually track their progress through the year. And I’d like parents to be able to see this progress too.” With these words, a novice kindergarten teacher would soon find herself in a position of leadership, eventually leading to school-wide change.

That statement was all that was needed to launch the power of student-led conferences (SLCs) at one Albemarle County (ACPS) elementary school.  Student-led conferences are a way for parents and family members to come to school, sit beside their child and discuss their child’s academic progress and goals for future learning.

The process of launching SLCs can be overwhelming at first. In this case, that process rang especially true. The idea of implementing SLCs came with only a few months left in the school year and almost zero prior knowledge about the practice among the teachers involved.

Indeed, there are stacks of books and reams of professional articles that can provide guidance about how to roll out SLCs.  Schools and teachers can certainly rely on those resources, but with the constraints of time and a relatively small team (two teachers and one instructional coach at the beginning), that was not the route we took.  With a little bit of research and an evening spent observing student-led conferences in action at another ACPS school, these teacher-leaders were able to craft a plan, recruit other faculty members and host an evening of students and families engaged in purposeful conversations about their learning.

One teacher.  One idea.

That was the catalyst, but there were a few key components that came together to allow this first year of SLCs to launch successfully:

Keep things simple

Teachers resisted the temptation to create new, glossy samples of student learning.  Instead, students shared what they were already doing in their classrooms.  For example,

  • To show reading growth, students simply shared a book that they could read at the beginning of the year and a book they could read now.
  • For writing, they showed the first page of their journal and the most recent page.
  • For math, students chose a math game that was currently in use in the classroom and played it with their family members.

Connect with other teachers

Since other schools in ACPS had years of experience with hosting student-led conferences and the timing was just right, our team did a little bit of research and then attended an SLC evening at another school.  A connection was forged between teachers across schools providing our teacher-leaders with a network of support among local “experts.”

Build a team within the school

Our teacher-leaders left their evening of observation with a commitment to launch SLCs in their own classrooms by the end of the school year.  As they returned to school with enthusiasm and shared their ideas with their kindergarten and first grade teammates, they found themselves surrounded by a small team that was willing to commit to also hosting SLCs by the end of the school year. Administrators provided feedback about dates and times and family communication.  A small team of instructional coaches served as planning partners for teachers and as extra adults to allow students to practice.

Instructional Coach Perspective

The Instructional Coaching model in ACPS is a truly collaborative one that allows teachers to be connected to every other other teacher in the county via a coach. Specifically, teachers work closely with coaches at their schools and coaches interact with each other on a regular basis. Teacher, coach, coach, teacher.  As a result of this established network, I knew the Student Led Conference work was already happening at one ACPS school.  Even though I had never led my own students through SLCs, when the teacher I was working with expressed her desire to share student growth with parents, I was able to tap into my bank of knowledge about what was happening on the other side of the county.

A second component of coaching that played an important role in stepping into SLCs was the fact that a strong, trusting relationship had been built between the coach and the two pioneering teachers.  Work with these teachers over the year included a spectrum of coaching opportunities; from listening to ideas, lending a hand in the classroom, observing the teachers, modelling lessons, reflecting and brainstorming possible changes to sharing laughter and stories about our families over lunch.   Through all of these experiences, we established respect for each others’ capabilities.  I knew the power of having built this relationship when one of the teachers told me, “I can do this, if you do it with me.”

Another aspect of the ACPS coaching model that contributed to the success is the structure of having multiple coaches working at each individual school.  Because the two teachers had decided to complete the process of planning and hosting Student Led Conferences, while bringing along four other teachers, I knew that we would need to employ an “all hands on deck” approach.  I reached out to my two coaching teammates and they dove right into the work with me.  They were involved in planning, practicing with students, recording the process and reflecting with the team about successes and considerations for the following year. Further, having more than one coach at each school has allowed me to move on to work with new schools this year, while the rest of my team has continued to support those teachers as they move forward with planning SLCs for the current school year.


This first year of SLCs concluded with a resounding, “This was a lot easier than I thought,” from the teachers involved.  In addition to that collective sigh, teachers reflected on what went well and what they would like to change as they move forward.

Positive outcomes

  • Children were able to talk about growth and recognize how much they changed from the beginning of the year to end of the year.
  • Kids and parents appeared to be engaged.
  • Parents were able to see what growth occurred.
  • Teachers learned about each student’s personality as they interacted with families.
  • Faculty saw different aspects of children that they might not normally see in the classroom.
  • Students took ownership of their learning.

Considerations for the next year

  • Start using language of growth from the beginning of the year.
  • Be more intentional when talking with students about growth and what strategies were successful for their growth.
  • Check in with kids on a regular basis to set and review goals.
  • Track student growth in an organized and visible way.

How does all of this lead to student empowerment?

One teacher’s reflections sum this up simply: “In the past we assessed our students. The results seemed to be a ‘secret’ that only the teacher knew about and understood.  Only the teacher could see the growth.  Now we are on the path toward our kids being able to see and understand their own growth and progress.” – ACPS, Kindergarten Teacher