A PARENT-TEACHER conference is something like a stockholders' meeting.
Interested parties come together -- often once a year -- to talk about their investment: To cut their losses, to solve problems, to set goals, to look for new dividends.
Like most investments, a child's education guarantees no absolute return, but it does warrant continued interest.
That interest is often compounded at this time of year as schools hold parent-teacher conferences to coincide with the first report cards. Schools approach these conferences differently, with some filling a day with 15-minute sessions for every child and others seeing only the parents of those students with problems.
In elementary schools, where a teacher usually has 25 or 30 students, every parent often has the opportunity to meet with her. In middle and secondary schools, where students have several teachers and each teacher may have 125 students, conferences are often staggered throughout the school year or scheduled only for students with problems.
Whatever the approach, most schools and teachers consider these conferences necessary to foster the communication that they say must exist between school and family.
"Conferences are an important and essential tool for communicating concerns," says Barry Thomas, a 20-year teaching veteran of Baltimore County's elementary and middle schools.
"A child needs to know that parents and teachers are in communication," says Linda Dobry, a kindergarten teacher at James Harrison Elementary School in Laurel. "Things improve dramatically in the classroom when they do."
Penny Vahsen, a seventh-grade teacher in Anne Arundel County, considers the conferences "incredibly important" to teachers, students and parents alike. Conferences are a time for parents to hear not only about grades, but also about their child's behavior, social skills, attitudes and aptitudes, she says.
On the other hand, ''parent-teacher conferences are a time for teachers to learn,'' adds Richard Bavaria, a spokesman for the Baltimore County schools and a former teacher. ''I would hope that teachers ask as many questions as they answer.''
Teachers can find out about a child's study habits, attitude toward school, health, hobbies and about family situations that might affect his school work, he says.
''Sometimes there's something going on at home that we don't know about -- a move, a divorce," adds Vahsen, who teaches science at Magothy River Middle School in Arnold. ''If we know these things . . . it makes our job a little easier.''
Parent-teacher conferences also let teachers know their students better. "Often, I get an inkling into the child by meeting the parents," says Vahsen.
Parent-teacher conferences are not, however, easy -- for parents or teachers.
''There's always a little bit of concern until you can feel comfortable,'' says Thomas, a sixth-grade science teacher at Deer Park Middle School in Randallstown. ''The first couple of minutes set the tone. I've been in conferences where people have been hostile.''
More often, though, parents may be intimidated by teachers, say Dobry and Thomas. This either keeps them away from conferences entirely or makes them incommunicative when they come.
Thomas says parents' attitudes are often colored by their own left-over feelings toward school and by their experiences at previous conferences. ''One negative experience almost has a domino effect,'' he adds.
To help parents, Thomas is teaching a workshop in ''techniques for successful school conferences'' tomorrow at Catonsville Community College. He will repeat the workshop at Towson State University in February. Thomas will offer parents help with the kinds of questions they should ask, with preparing for a conference and with evaluating that conference.
''Ninety percent of those who come in are receptive'' to teachers' comments and suggestions, says Vahsen.
But even getting some parents to a conference is difficult, teachers say.
Because of the number of students each middle school teacher has, Vahsen says conferences are requested only with those parents whose children are failing a course or are working well below their perceived potential.
Dobry, too -- with 50 kindergartners and only a half-day allotted for conferences -- seeks out the parents of children "who are already becoming at risk," she says.
Even then, some parents do not come. "There are three or four parents I will not see all year," says Dobry, adding that the no-show rate is probably much higher in other schools and at higher grade levels.
"It's disheartening. We can only do so much in the classroom,'' says Vahsen. And when parents aren't interested, "the child suffers."
Because most teachers are also parents, they understand today's families. "A lot of parents have a vested interest, but there are just so many demands on the family," says Thomas.
Some parents that don't seem interested really are, says Dobry, but they are simply overwhelmed by the necessities of life.
Parents' lack of attention is "understandable," says Vahsen, "but that doesn't make it acceptable. They have to be as dedicated toward education as they expect the teachers to be. We are looking desperately for help at home."
Some schools schedule late-afternoon and early-evening conferences to accommodate working parents. At Magothy River, this week's conferences were scheduled from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. But, "we still aren't getting them,'' Vahsen says of some parents.
Thomas says he and other teachers at Deer Park Middle School "do everything possible to meet parents," even arranging phone calls if face-to-face conferences prove impossible.
"By investing a few minutes, a teacher can get a whole lot," he says.
Parents, too, can get a good return on their time investment: "We see a great deal of improvement [in students], when parents are involved," says Vahsen.