Portrait of an Institution
Portrait of a Concept
Portrait of a Relationship
Portrait of a Developmental Stage
Portrait of a Process
Portrait of a Relationship
[Artist: Tolani Lawrence-Lightfoot (2003)]
To parents, their child is the most important person in their lives, the one who arouses their deepest passions and greatest vulnerabilities, the one who inspires their fiercest advocacy and protection. And it is teachers—society’s professional adults—who are the primary people with whom the parents must seek alliance and support in the crucial work of child rearing. They must quickly learn to release their child and trust that she or he will be well cared for by a perfect stranger whose role as teacher gives her access to the most intimate territory, the deepest emotional places. Their productive engagement with the teacher is essential for the child’s learning and growth, and for the parents’ peace of mind. All of these expectations and fears get loaded on to encounters between parents and teachers.
I believe that for parents there is no more dreaded moment, no arena where they feel more exposed than at the ritual conferences that are typically scheduled twice a year—once in the fall and once in the spring—in schools. Although it may not be quite as emotionally loaded for teachers, it is also an arena in which they feel most uncertain, exposed, and defensive, and the place where they feel their competence and their professionalism most directly challenged. Beneath the polite surface of parent-teacher conferences, then, burns a cauldron of fiery feelings made particularly difficult because everyone masks them and they seem inappropriate for the occasion.
This portrait focuses specifically on the parent-teacher conference, the ritual encounter in which the dynamics of this complex relationship get vividly, and dramatically, played out. In this ritual, so friendly and benign in its apparent goals, parents and teachers are racked with high anxiety. In this scene marked by decorum, politeness, and symbolism, they exhibit gestures of wariness and defensiveness. In this dialogue where the conversation appears to be focused on the child, adults often play out their own childhood histories, their own insecurities, and their own primal fears. In this encounter where the content seems to be defined by individual stories, there is embedded a broader cultural narrative.
Parent-teacher conferences, then, are crucial events because there is so much at stake for the children who cross family-school borders, because they arouse so much anxiety and passion for the adults, and because they are the small stage on which our broader cultural priorities and values get played out. In each of these ways, this tiny, twice-yearly ritual takes on a huge significance that can be overwhelming for the participants. But the importance of the parent-teacher encounters does not rest solely on these qualitative measures of passion and purpose. The sheer numbers attest to our need—as parents and educators—to find ways of making them as productive and as meaningful as possible. And these numbers are staggering. In the United States, there are between 4 million and 4.4 million teachers teaching approximately 52 million students in grades from prekindergarten through high school. (To give you a sense of scale and magnitude of these numbers, compare the population of teachers to two other professions—medicine and law—that offer their services to families and in which good client relationships are crucial to successful work. Approximately 598,000 physicians practice in the United States today, 200,000 of whom are in primary care as internists, pediatricians, and family practitioners. Of the 681,000 lawyers in this country, about three-quarters [roughly 510,750] regularly interact with clients through work in law firms or private practice.) If each of the approximately 4 million teachers has a minimum of two opportunities (once in the fall and once in the spring) to interact with students’ parents, guardians, or other family members in parent-teacher conferences, then there is the potential for parents and teachers to be engaged in more than 100 million conferences each school year.
Even though we estimate that the numbers are huge, it is of course impossible to know the exact number of parent-teacher conferences occurring each year. We know that some parents never cross the threshold of the school and others do so reluctantly and rarely. But the absence of those families is counterbalanced by large numbers of parents—particularly those of children in the early grades—who attend many more than two meetings per year. Their eager, frequent, and sometimes intrusive encounters with teachers are both formal and informal, scheduled and impromptu. For all of these powerful qualitative reasons, and based on the magnitude of these quantitative measures, it is fair to speak of the dialogue between parents and teachers as “the essential conversation.”
I have long had a fascination with the theater of this essential conversation; with its substance and its symbolism; with its text and subtext; with its personal and public meanings. As a matter of fact, my first book, Worlds Apart (1978), explored the broad landscape of family-school relationships surrounding and shaping the parent-teacher dialogue. In its attempt to chart the historical and institutional intersections between these two primary institutions of socialization, my work was pioneering. It broke new ground. Up until that point, social scientists had looked at acculturation in families and education in schools as if these were separable, dichotomous domains in the life of a child. But I argued that families and schools are overlapping spheres of socialization, and that the successful learning and development of children depends, in part, on building productive boundaries between and bridges across them.