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In parent-teacher conferences, 'enemies' can be friends

More than 100 million times a year, sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot estimates, parents sit down with their children's teachers to hear how their kids are doing in school. In almost every case, this semiannual rite of the parent-teacher conference could - and should - be more frank and productive, Lawrence-Lightfoot says in her recent book, ``The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other.'' Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of eight books, has much personal experience on which to draw, having two of her own children, a daughter, 22, and a son, 20. She spoke recently with the Globe about lessons learned from her detailed look at parent-teacher meetings.

Q. You describe teachers as society's ``professional adults.'' Does that put teachers in conflict with parents?

A. I talk about parents and teachers being ``natural enemies,'' a phrase used by sociologist Willard Waller. Parents have an intimate, subjective, protective role. Teachers, on the other hand, are there to guide children in learning how to be in a group. When parents say, ``I want you to be fair to my son,'' they are saying, ``I want you to give him special attention.'' When teachers say, ``I have to be fair to all the children,'' they are saying, ``I have to share the resources of my energy among all the children.''

Q. As a child, you recall your parents seeming ``off-balance'' meeting with your teacher. As a parent, you describe the ``emotional trauma'' of parent-teacher conferences. Why do otherwise confident people get jittery when they talk with their children's teacher?

A. When parents go into a classroom, they are thrown back to their own childhoods. They sit facing the teacher in those tiny chairs and feel as they felt then when they were small, powerless. There is something infantilizing and regressive about it. Very often parents get confused about which child they are talking about - their own child or their own childhood experience.

Q. You recommend that parents bring their child to the parent-teacher conference. But might some things, tough truths, be too difficult for children to hear?

A. As a rule, this should be a three-way conference - parent, teacher, and child. By excluding the child, we exclude the person who knows the school scene and the home scene. We are also passing up an extraordinary opportunity to help children evaluate their own learning and make really good judgments about what they do well and those things they have trouble with and are challenged by. Certain things are too confusing, scary, or private that children shouldn't be in on. I saw a teacher who met with parents and children who said at the beginning, ``Towards the end, your mom and I will want to talk privately.'' It was a very natural expectation the child would leave. That should be the exception. Even high school kids who appear disinterested and aloof and cool are dying to participate. They would rather hear hard truths than not participate at all.

Q. You note many things that influence parent-teacher interactions, from personal experiences to racial, cultural, social, economic, and historical forces. How can parents and teachers recognize hot buttons and get past them to meaningful talk?

A. We need to recognize ghosts in the classroom. Traumatic childhood experiences have a way of unconsciously intruding on conversations. They should never overwhelm them. Parent teacher conferences are also often very empty rituals. Teachers need to present parents with evidence, illustrations, portfolios, anecdotes from the classroom, so they can get a vivid view of what their child is like in school. It moves the conversation from abstraction to specifics, from pleasantries to substance. No conference should be generic. The discussion with Susan's parents should not sound like the conference with Joshua's parents. Getting past chasms - even chasms of race, class, and culture - has to do with focusing on specifics, the individuality and strengths of each child.

Q.

How frequent should parent-teacher conferences be and are they the best way to communicate?

A. They could be more frequent, maybe three times a year. It is also important to have frequent communication [outside of] parent-teacher conferences, like a newsletter a teacher might send home weekly. E-mails are also good for communicating curricular assignments, events, or performances. Workshops that bring parents together as a group are helpful.

Q. Are you saying that other forms of communication can lessen pressure on the parent-teacher conference?

A. Other forms of communication are a way for parents and teachers to get to know one another. Otherwise during the parent-teacher conference they are stuck in roles and stances and they don't know each other well enough to begin a conversation that is meaningful. We want to replace enmity that might be there with empathy, [and] help parents put themselves in the teacher's shoes and vice versa.

This interview was conducted by Laura Pappano.

You describe teachers as society's "professional adults." Does that put teachers in conflict with parents? I talk about parents and teachers being "natural enemies," a phrase used by sociologist Willard Waller. Parents have an intimate, subjective, protective role. Teachers, on the other hand, are there to guide children in learning how to be in a group. When parents say, "I want you to be fair to my son," they are saying, "I want you to give him special attention." When teachers say, "I have to be fair to all the children," they are saying, "I have to share the resources of my energy among all the children."As a child, you recall your parents seeming "off-balance" meeting with your teacher. As a parent, you describe the "emotional trauma" of parent-teacher conferences. Why do otherwise confident people get jittery when they talk with their children's teacher?When parents go into a classroom, they are thrown back to their own childhoods. They sit facing the teacher in those tiny chairs and feel as they felt then when they were small, powerless. There is something infantilizing and regressive about it. Very often parents get confused about which child they are talking about -- their own child or their own childhood experience.You recommend that parents bring their child to the parent-teacher conference. But might some things, tough truths, be too difficult for children to hear?As a rule, this should be a three-way conference -- parent, teacher, and child. By excluding the child, we exclude the person who knows the school scene and the home scene. We are also passing up an extraordinary opportunity to help children evaluate their own learning and make really good judgments about what they do well and those things they have trouble with and are challenged by. Certain things are too confusing, scary, or private that children shouldn't be in on. I saw a teacher who met with parents and children who said at the beginning, "Towards the end, your mom and I will want to talk privately." It was a very natural expectation the child would leave. That should be the exception. Even high school kids who appear disinterested and aloof and cool are dying to participate. They would rather hear hard truths than not participate at all.You note many things that influence parent-teacher interactions, from personal experiences to racial, cultural, social, economic, and historical forces. How can parents and teachers recognize hot buttons and get past them to meaningful talk?We need to recognize ghosts in the classroom. Traumatic childhood experiences have a way of unconsciously intruding on conversations. They should never overwhelm them. Parent teacher conferences are also often very empty rituals. Teachers need to present parents with evidence, illustrations, portfolios, anecdotes from the classroom, so they can get a vivid view of what their child is like in school. It moves the conversation from abstraction to specifics, from pleasantries to substance. No conference should be generic. The discussion with Susan's parents should not sound like the conference with Joshua's parents. Getting past chasms -- even chasms of race, class, and culture -- has to do with focusing on specifics, the individuality and strengths of each child.How frequent should parent-teacher conferences be and are they the best way to communicate? They could be more frequent, maybe three times a year. It is also important to have frequent communication [outside of] parent-teacher conferences, like a newsletter a teacher might send home weekly. E-mails are also good for communicating curricular assignments, events, or performances. Workshops that bring parents together as a group are helpful. Are you saying that other forms of communication can lessen pressure on the parent-teacher conference?Other forms of communication are a way for parents and teachers to get to know one another. Otherwise during the parent-teacher conference they are stuck in roles and stances and they don't know each other well enough to begin a conversation that is meaningful. We want to replace enmity that might be there with empathy, [and] help parents put themselves in the teacher's shoes and vice versa.This interview was conducted by Laura Pappano.

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