How to better pair parents and teachers

All the teachers Sara Lawrence- Lightfoot interviewed for her book "The Essential Conversation," she says, "needed to begin with their early childhood experiences as a way of describing the origins and motivations of their work with families."

Most often, she adds, these memories contained a kind of pain that "seemed to be the major reason they chose teaching as a career."

She recalls her own teacher in second grade telling her parents she "just might not be college material." Today a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of eight books, she turned to the topic of how parents talk with teachers in her latest book.

Parents, too, sometimes bring to the conversation their own searing memories of school, which can make the parent-teacher conference a troubled convergence of needs, wants, and agendas. But the conference can also be a crossroads of kinship. "As one teacher put it, in a voice that gave thanks, teaching gives me the chance to heal myself," Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot writes.

How do you provide a healthy place for all the points of view present at the conference table?

Teachers should use their own teacher education, understanding of developmental patterns, of putting feelings into language. Parents and teachers listening with empathy, recognizing that the other has much to contribute to the understanding of the child, will be useful in the child's learning and development.

What are some parental assumptions teachers should be aware of?

I have heard from many parents who have careers of greater status that they feel smarter than the teacher, or more capable of the intellectual development that they hope their child will achieve.

Another is thinking about their child as a total extension of the parent rather than the child as a human being with his or her own individual identity. Teachers need to help parents share the details of the child's life - what they're good at, what they enjoy or are afraid of, what their challenges are outside school.

Have we lost sight of the hearts and minds of the family involved in learning?

There is this narrowing view of measurable, quantifiable indices of achievement and success in school.

This [narrowing] forces people, both teachers and parents, to focus only on visible, cognitive skills rather than on the whole child. Human development needs to be about both.

With state, federal, and even local mandates around the standards movement, we lose sight of how important it is to consider the well-being of the individual child. Teachers can help parents broaden their view of the agenda of school, even against the constraints of this policy world.

What are the perspectives that make teachers and parents indispensable to one another?

Teachers are the only ones who can supply a view of the individual child against the backdrop of the social group, or a view of the child in the classroom ... through stories, anecdotes, and details.

Parents come with a panicked feeling: 'Is it only my child who feels this way, who does this?' Teachers can say, 'As a matter of fact, that's the way that most 9-year-olds are.' School is one of the few places where parents don't actually see the child in process.

When do you know a conference hasn't gone well?

If a parent leaves a conference feeling that it was formalistic or sentimentalized.... One should not feel huge discrepancies in status and power, nor leave feeling that you haven't learned anything about your child, or that the conversation has been largely about either yourself or your wish to make the child more like yourself.

Is there a common denominator among teachers who are effective in conferences?

Their conferences are truly not generic. Whether I'm talking about a Catholic teacher in an inner-city school or a teacher of 4-year-olds at an independent, progressive, elite school, they know how to communicate to parents [about] who their child is in school.

How do we get there?

During the era of effective-schools literature 25 years ago, one of the dimensions of an effective school was collaboration between families and schools. But people haven't given it their full attention as a dynamic that can yield major changes in the ways children experience their lives at school.

Todd R. Nelson writes the Learning Curve column for the Maine Association of Middle Level Educators. He is an associate editor at Hope magazine.

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