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Getting the Most Out of Parent Teacher Conferences

The Spectre of the Little Chair

Posted: 2003-11-07

In a Q & A, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot offers tips on improving parent teacher conferences. For starters, bring the kid along.

This comes from USA Today:


As students nationwide bring home report cards, adults are sitting down for the age-old ritual of parent-teacher conferences. In her new book The Essential Conversation, Harvard University sociologist and education professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot says these often adversarial exchanges can be helped by acknowl-edging "the ghosts in the classroom" and by ensuring that the ritual doesn't become routine. USA TODAY's Greg Toppo asked her how to make the most of the occasion:

Q: What's the most important thing parents and teachers should do to prepare for a conference?

A: Parents should come prepared to share their very intimate and complex view of their child, bringing a vivid anecdote or story that will help the teacher know their child better. Teachers need to come with evidence of the child's work ? writings, homework assignments, tests and observations gathered in a portfolio ? that will help focus the conversation and make it productive. In other words, teachers should be prepared to offer parents a vicarious view of their child's life in the classroom. Just as important, parents and teachers must both come to the conference with their defenses down and their hearts open, prepared to listen, to really hear and appreciate the other's perspective.

Q: You say parents must acknowledge "the ghosts in the classroom."

A: Every time parents and teachers come together in the classroom, their conversations are shaped by their own stories, unconscious replays of childhood experiences. The parents sit facing the teacher in the chairs that their children inhabit each day, and they begin to feel the same way they felt when they were students ? small and powerless. When teachers offer observations and evaluations of their students, they are often using values and frameworks carved out of their own childhood experiences. Adults come together prepared to focus on the present and the future of the child, but instead feel themselves drawn back into their own pasts, visited by "the ghosts" of their parents, grandparents, and former teachers. I believe that communication between parents and teachers is enhanced when there is an awareness and consciousness of these "ghosts," but that they should never overwhelm the focus on the immediate moment in the child's life.

Q: What's the biggest mistake parents and teachers make in these conferences?

A: Both parents and teachers often make the mistake of treating the conference like an empty ritual, all form, no substance. The conversation remains at the level of abstractions, generalities and platitudes. In order for parent-teacher conferences to be productive, the ritual must not turn into routine.

Q: When is it appropriate for the child to attend?

A: I believe that children as young as 6 should be present and participate. After all, they are the only ones who have an intimate knowledge of both the home and the school scenes. They are the best authorities on their own experience and they bring a valuable perspective. Of course, teachers must first coach students in how to evaluate their own work, how to monitor their progress and how to speak candidly about their challenges and difficulties. These self- reflective skills are very important to a child's education. Clearly, there are times when the adults might wisely make a judgment that the child's presence would not be beneficial, that it might even be harmful, when the conversation would be too threatening, confusing or anxiety-producing. But these adult-only dialogues should be the exception, not the rule.

Q: You write about a parent who complains that her son's teachers "created a monster out of such a sweet child." If parents have such a major complaint, should they bring it to the parent-teacher conference? It seems too important for a 20-minute meeting.

A: Major concerns about a child should not wait for the twice-yearly parent-teacher conference. Not only should these conferences be more frequent, they should also be accompanied by other forms of contact ? telephone calls, spontaneous conversations at the classroom door, home visits, weekly newsletters, family workshops, e-mails and Web site postings. When parents and teachers have multiple opportunities for dialogue, there are few surprises or secrets, and fewer chances that sweet children will turn into "monsters."

Q: What's the most important thing parents and teachers should get from a conference?

A: "We" is the most important word in parent-teacher dialogues. Parents and teachers need to work collaboratively in support of the child, and they must leave the conference feeling empathy ? not enmity ? for the other's perspective.

Parent-teacher conferences

How to get the most out of conferences

Bring your child. Parent-teacher conferences should be three-way conversations. Even young children are authorities on their own learning and experience.

Ask for the truth and be ready to hear it.

No conference should feel routine, generic or one-sided. Focus on the individual nature of your child and on reaching goals that are collectively set.

Remember that you are the only person who knows your child intimately and passionately, and that you are his or her best advocate.

Work collaboratively with the teacher. Remember that "we" is the most important word in parent-teacher dialogues.

Visit your school's Web site often and find out whether your child's teacher is receptive to e-mail.

Stay in touch. Visit the classroom more than just twice a year.

Source: The Essential Conversation by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

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