The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other

The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other

by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

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With the insights she has gleaned from her close and subtle observation of parent-teacher conferences, renowned Harvard University professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has written a wise, useful book about the ways in which parents and teachers can make the most of their essential conversation—the dialogue between the most vital people in a child’s life.


With the insights she has gleaned from her close and subtle observation of parent-teacher conferences, renowned Harvard University professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has written a wise, useful book about the ways in which parents and teachers can make the most of their essential conversation—the dialogue between the most vital people in a child’s life.

“The essential conversation” is the crucial exchange that occurs between parents and teachers—a dialogue that takes place more than one hundred million times a year across our country and is both mirror of and metaphor for the larger cultural forces that define family-school relationships and shape the development of our children. Participating in this twice-yearly ritual, so friendly and benign in its apparent goals, parents and teachers are often wracked with anxiety. In a meeting marked by decorum and politeness, they frequently exhibit wariness and assume defensive postures. Even though the conversation appears to be focused on the student, adults may find themselves playing out their own childhood histories, insecurities, and fears.

Through vivid portraits and parables, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot captures the dynamics of this complex, intense relationship from the perspective of both parents and teachers. She also identifies new principles and practices for improving family-school relationships. In a voice that combines the passion of a mother, the skepticism of a social scientist, and the keen understanding of one of our nation’s most admired educators, Lawrence-Lightfoot offers penetrating analysis and an urgent call to arms for all those who want to act in the best interests of their children.

For parents and teachers who seek productive dialogues and collaborative alliances in support of the learning and growth of their children, this book will offer valuable insights, incisive lessons, and deft guidance on how to communicate more effectively. In The Essential Conversation, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot brings scholarship, warmth, and wisdom to an immensely important cultural subject—the way we raise our children.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Here is a book that will help us all understand what happens when children leave home in order to learn at school: One world meets another, and as a consequence the young witness their elders in an instructive encounter of great significance—all of which is told forthrightly and thoughtfully in an enormously important volume (one soon to be a classic in the literature of education) that will be of continuing value to its readers.”
—Robert Coles, author of Children of Crisis and Lives of Moral Leadership

“To the parents: This treasure of a book is full of wisdom and insight. You should put it on your nightstand and read a little each night before you go to sleep, because in another part of your home is a child who is your heart, your dreams, and your positive future. Parents and teachers need to work in unison for the benefit of our children and our world. In The Essential Conversation, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot gives us the vision and shows us the way.”
—Bill Cosby, author of Fatherhood

“Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has demonstrated again her instinct for the telling specificity that offers not only insight into matters of broad social concern but also reason for hope. In precise and luminous prose she connects our deepest passions and painful memories to the conversations that will determine our children’s futures.”
—Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Life

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Random House Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.66(d)

Read an Excerpt


Ghosts in the Classroom

The Doorknob Phenomenon

The parent-teacher conference is over; the father rises to leave and heads for the door. He touches the doorknob, then turns back abruptly with one final thought that he delivers passionately. “And another thing,” he blurts out, referring to a topic that was covered earlier in the meeting. “That same thing happened to me in fifth grade, and I swear it is not going to happen to my child!” His tone is threatening; his teeth are bared. His anguished outburst surprises even him. His passion explodes in defense of his child and in self-defense of the child he was.

Generational Echoes

Every time parents and teachers encounter one another in the classroom, their conversations are shaped by their own autobiographi- cal stories and by the broader cultural and historical narratives that inform their identities, their values, and their sense of place in the world. These autobiographical stories—often-unconscious replays of childhood experiences in families and in school—are powerful forces in defining the quality and trajectory of parent-teacher dialogues. There is something immediate, reflexive, and regressive, for both parents and teachers, about their encounters with one another, a turning inward and backward, a sense of primal urgency. The parents come to the meeting, sit facing the teacher in the chairs that their children inhabit each day, and begin to feel the same way they felt when they were students—small and powerless. And when the teachers offer observations and evaluations of their students, they are often using values and frameworks carved out of their own early childhood experiences. The adults come together prepared to focus on the present and the future of the child, but instead they feel themselves drawn back into their own pasts, visited by the ghosts of their parents, grandparents, siblings, and former teachers, haunted by ancient childhood dramas. These visitations and echoes reverberate through the room, complicating the conversation and filling the space with the voices of people who are not there, people who are often long gone. The “doorknob phenomenon,” a typical but surprising aftershock of the visitation of ghosts during the conference, is evidence that parent-teacher dialogues are imprinted with ancient, psychological themes; that conversations between them reverberate with intergenerational voices; and that part of the power of these ghostly appearances is that they are usually hidden from consciousness.

For a long time, of course, the psychological literature has emphasized the power of early childhood experiences—primarily formed within the intimacy and potency of parent-child relationships—to the shaping of adult temperament and personality. It has also underscored the ways in which these primal relationships get replayed and reconfigured in the next generation. For example, in a famous essay by psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg, she speaks about the unwelcome and unconscious presence of these ghosts hovering in the nursery, establishing residence at the baby’s side, casting a spell on the way the parents relate to the child. She says, “These are ghosts in the nur- sery . . . visitors from the unremembered pasts of the parents, the uninvited guests at the christening.” Although the ghosts to whom Fraiberg refers are imaginary, they are real in the emotional lives of parents. The images and stories of ancestral figures in the parents’ families make a claim on their unique view of their child and on their hopes and dreams for who he/she is and will become.

In this chapter we see that these ancestral figures make their appearance in school as well. They are particularly intrusive when parents and teachers come together, each with their own autobiographical scripts. Just like the father whose parting shot echoed with an ancient pain, teachers also surprise themselves by beginning almost every conversation about their relationship to parents with emotion-packed reflections on their own childhood experiences. They speak about how their work with students and parents offers them the chance to undo early traumas in their lives or replay and enhance good memories that made them strong. They discover that their relationships with individual students—their overidentification with one, their unfettered admiration of another, or their feelings of revulsion with another—are often the result of seeing their own childhoods mirrored in their students.

These generational echoes are double-edged for both parents and teachers. They are a source of both guidance and distraction, insight and bias. They sometimes lead to important breakthroughs and discoveries in the conversation, and at other times force an abrupt breakdown and impasse. But for the most part, these meta-messages remain hidden, inaudible, unarticulated. They are the raw, unvarnished subtext to the ritualized, polite, public text of the conversation. They are the unconscious, diffuse backdrop to the precise words that fill the foreground dialogue.

What is fascinating about these generational echoes is how deep and penetrating they are and yet how easily they are uncovered. They are both subterranean and open to revelation. Given a safe place to talk about their lives and their work and an attentive, respectful listener who is genuinely curious about their experiences, people discover, often for the first time, the early roots of their current preoccupations and actions. When these long-ago tales are uncovered, their power and influence are indisputable.

Every one of the teachers I interviewed, for example, finds it necessary to begin with her life story, her perspective as a young child. For some teachers their autobiographical references capture only fragments of a story, metaphors or images that reverberate with broad and deep meaning: a father’s frown of disapproval, a competitive sibling’s fierce determination to earn better grades, a humiliating moment forgetting the practiced prose of a valedictory speech, a teacher’s insinuating insult. For others the narratives are detailed and sequential, embedded in context and rich with emotional texture. Interestingly, most of the teachers’ references to their childhood stories refer to traumatic, painful experiences rather than memories of triumph, and these have a huge impact on how they work with their students and build relationships with parents.

It is important to recognize that teachers’ reflections on their life stories as touchstones for their work with students and families flies in the face of much of the scholarly literature on teachers. That literature describes them as—assumes them to be—neutral, unemotional, and static adults with no interior life, no phantoms from the past, no ambivalence, and no fears. Philosopher Maxine Greene challenges this pervasive view of teachers as bound up in their professional, rationalistic, and objective straitjackets and urges us to recognize the power of their “personal biographies.” This narrow conception of teachers, says Greene, is not only a distortion of the complex, layered lives of teachers both within and outside the classroom, it also limits the repertoire of ways in which they might successfully relate to children and their families, and the range of human qualities and emotions in them that might support communication and rapport with parents.

The teacher is frequently addressed as if he had no life of his own, no body, and no inwardness. Lecturers seem to presuppose a “man within a man” when they describe a good teacher as infinitely controlled and accommodating, technically efficient, impervious to moods. They are likely to define him by the role he is expected to play in the classroom, with all of the loose ends gathered up and all his doubts resolved. The numerous realities in which he exists as a living person are overlooked. His personal biography is overlooked, so are the many ways in which he expresses his private self in language, the horizons he perceives, the perspectives through which he looks on the world. (Greene, 1973)

Greene’s statement seems to suggest a connection between an appreciation for teachers’ personal biographies and their ability to fully engage the doorknob phenomenon that they see in parents. If teachers are to learn to respond to the ghosts that parents bring to the classroom, they too have to learn to recognize the autobiographical and ancestral roots that run through their own school lives.

Teachers are not only likely to be influenced by the narrow construction of their professional role that is conveyed in the literature, they are also likely to receive little if any preparation in their educational training for working with parents. None of the teachers that I spoke to, for example, mentions learning anything about working with families during their teacher training programs. Nor do they point to any lessons or guidance that they might have received as beginning teachers working in schools. Whether they were trained in the teacher training “factories” of large state universities or earned their certificates in elite liberal arts colleges, whether they were enrolled in programs that were considered “conservative and traditional” or “humanistic and progressive” in their orientation, teachers all decry their lack of preparation in the arena of family-school relationships. They speak about this lack of preparation in three ways.

First, they claim that their education did not offer a conceptual framework for envisioning the crucial role of families in the successful schooling of children. They were never made aware of what social historian Lawrence Cremin calls the “ecology of education,” the broad map of the several institutions that educate children and their relationships to one another. Such awareness, they feel, would have given them a valuable perspective on the place and relative importance of school in the child’s life, and made them more cognizant of the spheres that children and their families have to navigate each day. Second, teachers describe training in which there was no central value put on the crucial importance and complexity of building productive parent-teacher relationships. Yes, there was always facile rhetoric about teachers needing to create alliances with the significant adults in their students’ lives, but never a realization of the enormous opportunities and casualties that such an effort would entail. Third, teachers claim that their training never gave them tools and techniques, the practical guidance that is helpful in communicating and working with parents. Lacking the conceptual framework, the valuing of parental perspectives, and the practical tools for productively engaging them, teachers feel ill prepared to face what many consider the “most vulnerable” part of their work—building relationships with parents.

One teacher did her graduate training at Bank Street College in New York, a place widely regarded as “progressive,” that believes in educating the whole child (mind, body, psyche, and spirit), and that regards parents as “primary educators.” She speaks of the contrasts between the college’s espoused philosophical stance and what she actually learned there. She does not dismiss the importance of being exposed to the rhetoric, but she does admit its practical limitations. “Perhaps,” she muses, “the dialogues at Bank Street gave me a kind of facility with the language and some developmental theories to hang the language on, but I certainly did not discover any new insights or useful strategies for working with parents.” Rather, she believes that her informal training started very early; that even as a young child she was carefully observing the adult encounters at the family-school borders. “I feel as if it has been a lifetime of watching . . . I learned through watching the way my mom and my dad dealt with people and relationships in their world,” she says, “but I was largely self-taught, leading with my intuition, imagination, and developing ideas. . . . What I experienced in school as a child definitely had the biggest influence.”

But it is not only that teachers feel unprepared by their college programs, it is also that once they arrive in their first jobs as teachers, they get little mentoring, guidance, or support. Once again, this seems to be true whether teachers are working in rural or urban schools, public, parochial, or independent schools, rich or poor schools. Even when school administrators are responsible and rigorous in supervising and supporting new teachers, their focus tends to be almost exclusively on pedagogy—on developing and delivering the curriculum, on nurturing relationships with students—not on helping teachers navigate relationships with families. Without training or institutional support in working with parents, teachers develop their own styles and rituals and define their own goals and content, and these are largely guided by the rituals and echoes from their childhoods.

Meet the Author

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a sociologist, is a professor of education at Harvard University, where, since 1972, she has studied the culture of schools, families, and communities. She is the author of eight books, including The Good High School, Respect, I’ve Known Rivers, and Balm in Gilead, which won the 1988 Christopher Award for “literary merit and humanitarian achievement.” In 1984, she was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Prize Fellowship. In 1993, she was awarded Harvard’s George Ledlie Prize for research that makes the “most valuable contribution to science” and is to “the benefit of mankind.” She is the first African-American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor.

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