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The Essential Conversation
A New Book from Fisher Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Harvard Graduate School of Education
January 1, 2004

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Fisher Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
Fisher Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot (photo: Benjamin Messinger)  
Fisher Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot recently published The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other, which focuses on the text and subtext, the substance and the symbolism of the much-dreaded parent-teacher conferences and offers lessons about how to make them more productive for both parties. The following is a brief overview of the new book.

In her new book, The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other (Random House, 2003), Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot explores parent-teacher conferences as the stage for a complex playing-out of major societal and cultural issues that shape the socialization and learning of children in our society.

“There is a rich and emotional subtext underneath the obliged politesse and decorum of parent-teacher meetings that needs acknowledgement.”

Drawing from her own experience as a mother of two and three years of research in a variety of school settings (public, private, parochial, and elementary, middle, and high schools across the country) Lawrence-Lightfoot analyzes the seemingly unassuming, semi-annual parent-teacher conferences that occur an estimated 100 million times a year in classrooms across America.

Lawrence-Lightfoot argues that more often than not, the parent-teacher conferences become awkward confrontations between the parents and the teachers who feel estranged from one another, rather than a ripe opportunity for them to strike a collaborative alliance in support of children. While parents remain on guard to protect their young, teachers are mindful of defending their personal professionalism. While parents advocate for their own individual child, teachers are determined to be fair to all of their students. These contrary roles and perspectives often lead to encounters that are competitive and adversarial.

A Rich and Emotional Subtext
Despite these conflicts and tensions, The Essential Conversation explains that effective and authentic dialogues between parents and teachers are not only possible, but necessary for achievement of children in school. The book offers insights and proposals for achieving meaningful and productive communication between schools and families and examines the hidden interplay at work in their conversations. "There is a rich and emotional subtext underneath the obliged politesse and decorum of parent-teacher meetings that needs acknowledgement, and it needs to be recognized before communication can be made more effective," says Lawrence-Lightfoot.

For example, an early chapter of the book introduces one such veiled influence that she calls "ghosts in the classroom." Through autobiographical narratives, readers witness parents and teachers rediscovering the traumas of their past, often deeply etched with negative emotions. These subliminal feelings may intrude on the real priority of the conversation—a focus on the achievement and development of the child. According to Lawrence-Lightfoot, these "ghosts" haunt the conversation, as the adults are drawn back into the anguish of their own childhoods. "This powerful, emotional baggage must be recognized in order that it does not overwhelm and distort the real purpose of conversation: the children," she says.

Students—The Missing Link
Lawrence-Lightfoot also explores the absence of one of the most insightful authorities in these conferences—the children. She proposes that children—as young as six years old—become full participants in the conference; they are the only ones who have an intimate knowledge of both the home and school scenes. Leaving children out of the conversation, she contends, should be the exception, not the rule. Thus, in this three-way conversation, parents, teachers, and children can draw a full portrait of the student's unique strengths and challenges and make the important transition from generic abstractions to concrete evidence, proofs, and tangible knowledge of the child's life in school.

Overall, the book emphasizes the value of parents and teachers having honest conversations and sharing each other's distinct perspective of the child. Lawrence-Lightfoot hopes readers will recognize the critical importance of authentic dialogue and empathic collaboration between parents and teachers; the bridge-building, mutual respect, and negotiation that's necessary in crossing the boundaries between school and family, and in creating a safe space to support the development of children.

For More Information
More information about Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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