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Strife and solutions at school conferences

Parents and teachers have a common goal, but talks on how to achieve it can get heated.

March 10, 2008|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Sixth-grade teacher Deidre Sexton watched in disbelief as a student was struck by his mother during a parent-teacher conference. Steve Klein recalled a mother who threatened to pull her ninth-grade son out of school and have him sell fruit on the freeway. Other teachers recount the times parents have tried to bully and intimidate them.

Parent-teacher conferences are a time-honored school tradition, but for many teachers they are also trying, emotionally wrought encounters. These days, the sessions are taking on a new look as schools contend with assertive or no-show parents as well as higher academic stakes that can cause tensions.

Some teachers are providing soft lighting and candles to set a friendly atmosphere. Students are being invited to lead sessions, in part to keep the adults in check. And some schools are offering child-care services to encourage participation.

Not even mood lighting, however, can keep some of the meetings from becoming heated.

Retired teacher Kristine Valentine recounted a session at Budlong Elementary School, south of Exposition Park, at which a woman, defensive about her son's poor classwork, refused to sit, towering over Valentine in an apparent attempt to put her at a psychological disadvantage.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 19, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Parent-teacher conference: An article about parent-teacher conferences in the March 10 California section misspelled Hancock Park sixth-grade teacher Deirdre Sexton's name as Deidre.

When Klein taught at Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles, the mother of the ninth-grader was so fed up after hearing repeatedly of the teenager's disruptive exploits that she asked Klein not to call her anymore for conferences.

The relationship between parents and teachers has often been somewhat tenuous. But many educators say that today's so-called helicopter parents are not partners as much as hovering, overly protective defenders of their children. Parents, in turn, say many schools overemphasize test scores rather than the abilities of individual students. And some worry about college admissions, which have become increasingly competitive and anxiety-inducing.

Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman for the National Assn. of Independent Schools, said schools -- and by extension teachers -- had been caught up in a societal shift of lagging respect for institutions generally. She hears repeated anecdotes from teachers, especially at private schools, who say that, even in the classroom, they are expected to respond immediately to telephone calls or e-mails from parents seeking impromptu conversations.

"The parents feel like they know their child best, and they are their advocates," McGovern said. "Whereas in the past the parents may have sided with the teacher, now that's less likely. Of course, the kids can manipulate that."

Scott Mandel, who teaches at Pacoima Middle School, said concern about manipulation is one reason he always has the student attend the conference.

"Otherwise these students can play one against the other," Mandel said. "Students are very smart, very good at this, and it's easy to make up stories."

Mandel, who recently published "The Parent-Teacher Partnership: How to Work Together for Student Achievement," said parent-teacher conferences were crucial, noting that one provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act school reform law called for more parental involvement.

"If you as a parent don't respect your teacher, you should probably be at another school," he said. "Teachers in turn need to respect parents as a consumer. It's like a doctor and patient who work together for the health of the body."

Christy Flynn, a fifth-grade teacher who is also a moderator at the website, plays soft music in the background (the songs of Harry Connick and Josh Groban are popular), lights a candle and sets out peppermints and chocolates for parents at her Louisiana grade school.

"When I have parents dealing with not-so-great news or more difficult issues, it does seem to take the wind out of their sails a bit," Flynn said.

The Children's School, a private campus in Stamford, Conn., produces a 15-minute DVD for each student, showing the child engaged in lessons and group activities. The DVDs are provided to parents and discussed at conferences.

But by all accounts, nothing quite prepares new teachers for the events, and some parents try to take advantage.

"I've been teaching 18 years now, and it's easier," said Sexton, who teaches in Hancock Park. "When you're younger and starting off, some parents feel like they can say more things to you. You have a kid who's struggling and they'll say well, he was a good student before he came to your class. But then you pull out the folder with the child's history and they're thrown for a loss."

With sometimes more than 20 parents to see, she can devote no more than 10 minutes to each conference and often tries to continue discussions via telephone or e-mail. Some of Sexton's students have tutors who are sent to conferences in lieu of parents -- which "works fine with me," Sexton said, adding that tutors sometimes ask better questions because they know the educational requirements.

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