Saturday, November 10, 2007
In Image: Fifth grade student Melinda Guzman, second from left, talks about her reading with teacher Laurie Humphrey, right, as her mother Yoli Guzman, left, and student teacher Rebecca Anshell, center, look, during a parent-teacher conference held at Halecrest Elementary School in Chula Vista, Calif. Monday, Oct. 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
By NANCY ZUCKERBROD | Associated Press
Nov 1, 2007
WASHINGTON (AP) — It's that time of year when moms and dads across the country are squeezing into uncomfortable kid-sized chairs to discuss with teachers whether their children are off to a good start at school. In some places, the conference comes with a wrinkle: The children sit in.
Marguerite Izzo, who teaches fifth grade in Malverne, N.Y., said including students makes kids more accountable for their work and behavior, and ensures that things do not get lost in translation.
"People get different stories," she said. "This alleviates all of that."
Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, agrees.
"These are good directions in conferencing because it really lets people know this is not a game of telephone," Epstein said.
The trend is a response to research showing that parents are more likely to attend a conference if their child also has to come, and to studies showing that students benefit from setting goals, she said.
Karen Ernst, a mother of three in Palatine, Ill., likes the new approach. But she says it is important to prepare kids and let them know what is expected. "They can get very shy," said Ernst, whose children range in age from 12 to 17.
Ernst talks with her children before a conference and explains that no one else will be in the room so they do not have to worry about privacy. She reminds them that the session is a rare opportunity for personal attention.
"They never get that moment with their teachers' ear ... without three other kids wanting her ear too," she said.
Being prepared for a parent-teacher conference is important regardless of whether children are included, said Columbia University Teachers College professor Frances Schoonmaker.
Parents without ready questions could lose out on a chance to gain valuable information, Schoonmaker said. Similarly, she said, parents should share information about their kids with the teacher.
"It's this idea that I have a piece of the puzzle and you have a piece the puzzle. Now, how can we work together?" she said.
Schoonmaker urges parents to refrain from becoming defensive and to think of conferences as opportunities.
"When they work, they are absolutely valuable," she said. "When they don't work, everybody is absolutely frustrated."
Kathy Ely, whose daughter is a freshman in high school, said she prepares by talking with her daughter first.
"I'll say to my daughter, 'I'm going next week, are there any things that are bothering you?'" said Ely, of Silver Spring, Md.
Ely said when there are no obvious problems, she tries to ask questions that might reveal new information. "There's always something to talk about and you shouldn't just approach it like, well, good grades — nothing to deal with."
Laurie Humphrey, an elementary school teacher in Chula Vista, Calif., sends letters home ahead of conferences to let parents know what will be addressed. She said that helps make sure parents are prepared.
Humphrey advises parents to ask whether their child is working at the proper grade level and whether they can see any test results. It also is important to ask how a child fits in socially, even if teachers are sometimes less comfortable talking about that.
She said parents should not be caught off guard if they get tough questions from teachers. She asks whether parents read to their children or read in front of children to show that it is a worthwhile activity.
"Sometimes they'll laugh, and say, 'I really don't,' Humphrey said. She said that kind of conversation, though sometimes awkward, can lead to important changes.
Not all teachers have the skills or confidence to do that; many can get nervous at conference time.
"I honestly think it's the part of the profession that teachers tiptoe around because you're never sure how to approach a parent, especially if the news isn't that good," said Rosalind LaRocque, assistant director of the educational issues department at the American Federation of Teachers.
Despite that, educators appear to be working to strengthen parent-teacher conferences by trying new things such as letting students come along. Schools also are increasingly offering baby-sitting during conferences, providing flexible scheduling and making translators available. More than a dozen states let employers know they are expected to allow their workers to attend conferences.
Regular conferences are more common in the early grades than in secondary schools. Typically they take place in the fall and spring, or around report card time.
Humphrey, interviewed recently by phone as she was getting ready for conferences, said she thinks conferences at the start of the year are especially important.
"Building a relationship with the parents from the first day of school is something I really try hard to work at," she said, adding that it can be a challenge to affect a student's learning process. "It's even more difficult without the parents buying in."
Johns Hopkins Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships: http://www.csos.jhu.edu/P2000/center.htm