Interview: Conference Calls

September 01, 2003 5 min read
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Few occasions make teachers and parents more apprehensive than the fall conference, during which they warily eye one another, wondering what possible schemes are being hatched. In The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other (Random House), Harvard education Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot explores the roots of this anxiety. Teachers worry they’ll be charged with not doing enough for the child, while parents fret about hearing criticisms from someone who doesn’t yet know their kid. As a result, both parties too often leave conferences feeling dissatisfied.

In her new book, Lawrence-Lightfoot—author of numerous volumes on school- community relations—demonstrates how the parent-teacher divide can be bridged, if not resolved, through the stories of 10 female teachers who’ve been effective at this kind of work. Their approaches vary, but the teachers are all excellent listeners who glean from parents detailed views that help them work more effectively with students in the classroom.

Reached by phone at Harvard, Lawrence-Lightfoot spoke about the many misconceptions shared by teachers and parents, including the idea that students should not be present at conferences.

Q. What are some of the things that go into making good parent- teacher conferences?

A. First teachers need to learn to respect the values of parents and caregivers, seeing them as the first educators, the ones who have the most holistic, comprehensive view of the child. Second, they need to understand that school is just one institution where kids grow up and get socialized. Third, teachers need to have a good grasp of the skills and techniques that make for good interaction. Unfortunately, most teacher training neglects family-school relationships. Actually, every teacher I talked to said they had no training in talking to parents.

Q. You suggest that teachers are too often focused on what the child is doing in the classroom and not focused enough on what the child is doing at home.

A. Right. One of the things I emphasize is that teachers should be prepared to listen to parents more. One of the most successful teachers I studied begins with a listening conference in the beginning of the year. She asks, “What is your child good at?” and “What is your child really like?” Such questions help a teacher get a more holistic view that will help her to do a better job of relating to the child inside of the classroom. They also help the teacher get beyond the conventional view of the conference as an event at which the teacher appeases the parents, cools them out without inviting wisdom. In spite of all the current rhetoric about productive family-school relationships, teachers and schools too often still see parents as enemies.

Q. Is it a dilemma that the teacher has to think of the greater good of the classroom, whereas the parents are focused just on their kid?

A. This is a very big issue, what [sociologist] Willard Waller way back in the 1930s called the “universalistic” orientation of teachers and the “particularistic” orientation of parents. That is, when parents are saying, “Just be fair to Jimmy,” they’re really saying, “Know him as an individual,” so that the teacher can give him what he needs. This is very individualistic advocacy. Teachers, on the other hand, are trying to create an atmosphere of equality where each child gets a fair amount of attention and learns to be part of a group. This difference will always be there, and it needs to be recognized. But this doesn’t necessarily mean discord. It can lead to empathy, where the parent and teacher come to appreciate the different priorities of the other.

Nevertheless, parent-teacher conferences will never be—and are not meant to be—relaxed, casual conversations. Teachers need to understand the advocacy and passion that parents bring and realize that conferences can be fiery and tempestuous. Not only have teachers not been trained in conducting conferences, they’ve also been told that the conferences should be friendly, benign events where they build alliances with parents. So they’re not prepared for conflict. And when it does come up, they too often take it personally.

Q. Parents can sometimes be highly critical. So how does the teacher not take it personally?

A. It requires some parent education, which all of the effective teachers I studied practice. They make it clear to the parents, for instance, that each child is not only an individual but a citizen of a group. They must also present a picture of the child to the parents that is very specific about anything that may be going wrong. And they should enlist parents in offering suggestions about how the child can become a full member of the group. Otherwise parents think, You don’t care about my kid.

Q. A teacher, though, needs evidence to back up her assertions.

A. Right, which is why you have to avoid the generalized, platitudinous statement. You need to present to parents the very specific kind of evidence you find in portfolios, anecdotes, well-described experience.

Q. Why did you not include any men in your study?

A. I did speak to a few male teachers, but in every single case they were not willing to participate. But I did choose women partially because they dominate the profession. And while fathers are now more involved, mothers are still the ones who mostly come to teacher-parent conferences. Also, most of the teachers in the study were mothers, and they said they drew a great deal from that.

Q. It’s interesting how parents and teachers can view the same child so differently. Once, for instance, a teacher told us that our daughter was quiet and shy at school, but she was talkative at home and outgoing with her friends.

A. Parents find it perplexing and disturbing when the child being described is not the child they know. That’s why children of all ages should participate in these conferences. They are the only ones who know how things are at both home and school, who can interpret both of these cultures. I talk in the book about one teacher who has 1st graders there at every conference. By the third teacher-parent conference of the year, the children are leading the conference, presenting their work.

Q. You say “children of all ages” should participate. Even high school kids?

A. Especially high school kids, though it’s best if they have had earlier experience. My daughter, for instance, never attended a teacher-parent conference until high school—nor my son, either. And it was always a feeling of mine that if they had had the practice and training early on, they would have been more effective and full participants. And they wouldn’t have been so scared to speak out at the conference when they finally went in. So parents and teachers should get children to the conferences at the earliest possible age.

—David Ruenzel


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