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Strife and solutions at school conferences

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.

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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.

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.

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“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.

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“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 www.atozteacherstuff.com, 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.

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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.

The most surprising reaction at a conference, Sexton said, was the woman who hit her son, a child with special needs. The teacher speculated that the mother had grown frustrated with the boy’s slow progress.

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There are also poignant miscommunications, like the time Jo Ann Sayers, who worked in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, met the mother of a fourth-grader. The boy apparently was running a racket in which he convinced his classmates that if they didn’t hand over their lunch money in exchange for his protection, they’d be beaten up. At the first parent-teacher conference, the 10-year-old boy offered to translate for his Pacific Islander mother, who apparently didn’t have a clue about his behavior.

“Remembering the directive to say something positive to begin a conference,” Sayers said, she started to say that the boy was good at sports. But before she got to the words “at sports,” the mother jumped up and hugged her son, thinking Sayers was praising the boy for being good.

“I just sat there in a state of shock,” Sayers said.

Sayers noted, though, that the boy’s behavior changed for the better after that. “Maybe more children need to hear that they are good.”

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Many teachers say the emphasis on good grades and high test scores causes some parents to be more demanding.

“Understandably, they want the highest grade possible to get into a ‘good’ college,” said Odell Mack, who teaches at Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades. Some parents have tried to intimidate him by claiming they want to have a conference and instead hauling him in front of the principal.

“It never ceases to amaze me how some parents want to tell teachers what they don’t think they should be doing, what they should be doing, what should not be included in the course, what the grading scale should be -- basically how we should do our jobs.”

Despite the obstacles, most teachers say conferences are valuable.

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On a recent morning at the Sequoyah School, an independent kindergarten-through-eighth-grade progressive campus in Pasadena, 7-year-old Ava led the conference for her parents, Juliana and Patrick Ferry, and teacher Jeff Radt.

She showed them her workbook and the reading and math problems she had been working on; talked about a favorite book, “Little House on the Prairie”; and said she wanted to do better in math and Spanish.

Her father, a teacher at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada Flintridge, told Radt how much he liked the student-led conference, which Sequoyah initiated this year.

“The relationship shouldn’t be adversarial,” said Juliana Ferry. “I’ve known parents at other schools who feel the need to defend their child. But not here. It’s more of a collaboration.”

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Ultimately, said Gretchen Kempf, who teaches at the private Campbell Hall in North Hollywood, teachers and parents must accept that they are working for the same goals.

“Kids need to know they are not in it by themselves, that we all have strengths and weaknesses and that they’re not alone,” Kempf said. “Whether we have 20 minutes or five, it helps to build a relationship.”

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c arla.rivera@latimes.com

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For more on schools, from inside and outside the classroom, go to www.latimes.com/the homeroom.


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