Take control and you'll win over those overzealous parents.
By Tim Walker
No teacher would deny that successful partnerships with parents are critical to student achievement, and are key in transforming public schools into true communities. For newer teachers especially, parents can be invaluable resources.
There’s a catch, of course. For all those rewarding relationships, it’s likely that among each year’s pool of parents are the few who are … well … too involved. These are the parents who question your every move; who bombard your inbox or voicemail with complaints and questions; who don’t seem to realize that you have a classroom full of other kids who need your attention. Their child is, you know, special.
“No doubt about it—one overbearing and unyielding parent,” says Kellie Hayden, a veteran middle school teacher in Ohio, “can make your school year very, very difficult.”
According to the 2006 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, educators said dealing with overzealous parents was an even greater challenge than maintaining classroom discipline, and is often cited as a major cause of teacher burnout. Expect a few stressful moments, but you can prevent exhausting parent relationships from ruining your year. And it starts with understanding where those super-pesky Moms and Dads and caregivers are coming from, and what they’re really after.
So-called “Helicopter Parents”—named in the early 1980s for their habit of constantly hovering over their children—have been testing the patience of teachers for years, if not decades. But some experts say the demands and expectations of Generation X (folks born between 1961 and 1981) are stirring up even more tension.
In fact, said the late William Strauss, co-author of Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, “Helicopter Parents” doesn’t quite capture the Gen Xer zeal for instant access and results. He anointed them “Stealth Fighter Parents”: No time to hover, they dive in with surgical precision and swiftness.
New teachers, who are probably younger than their students’ parents, can expect to be among their favorite targets, says Robert Wendover of the Center for Generational Studies, Aurora, Colorado.
“Generation Xers want transparency and accountability,” explains Wendover. “They expect access to resources, want satisfaction from teachers, and are less inclined to trust them and the public school system.”
Generational warfare—as if you didn’t have enough worries! It’s not quite that bad. Especially if you can show that you respect parents’ interest in their children’s education, while protecting your autonomy as the educator.
All parents are different, so don’t look for a “one-size-fits-all” approach, says Jennie Levy, a second-year special education teacher in Aurora, Colorado. “But the work you do upfront to reach out to parents can go far in establishing trust. It’s hard work, but there’s definitely a pay-off,” Levy says.
Gracye McCoy, now in her sixth year at Kendall-Whittier Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, also urges new teachers to take the initiative.
“Get to the parents first,” she advises. “I communicate with them early, establish who I am—that I am an involved teacher and take my job seriously. I also let them know that I welcome and value their input.”
As the year progresses, it might be difficult to keep in constant touch with interested parents about the work their sons and daughters are doing. If your school offers online tools that enable parents to see assignments and stay on top of what their child is learning, take advantage of them. These tools alone can answer many questions and satisfy parents’ concerns.
But count on it: Some parents still want face time and will come find you, armed with suggestions—some friendly and welcome, others not so much.
“Tell them if you’re already taking such-and-such course,” cautions McCoy. “You can thank them for the suggestion and listen. Usually, parents get the message that you are on top of things, and they’ll back off.”
Linda Robb, a veteran high school teacher in Indianapolis, has seen a few younger teachers immediately dig in their heels at the first hint of parental interference, and cautions against it.
After all, who knows these kids better than Mom and Dad? If you keep the lines of communication open, parents can be valuable resources in the student’s learning and discipline. It’s also advisable, says Robb, to cut them a little slack if they begin to complain and interfere.
“Even if a parent is out of bounds a bit, it’s worth it to help them save face,” says Robb. “You can ease a potential standoff by letting them know that you empathize with their position and that you understand their frustration.”
Even if you’re able to diffuse some situations, you may not be able to avoid the nightmare scenario of the angry parent who has crossed the line and is determined to stay there, or who even becomes verbally abusive.
“Don’t duke it out,” cautions Kellie Hayden. “Follow the chain of command and bring in your mentors and principal. As hard as it might be, stay calm and polite. Witnesses in the room can have a calming effect on an unduly angry parent.”
Even without an extreme situation, it’s not unusual for new teachers to feel a little intimidated in their initial encounters with parents. After all, you are new to the classroom, and every child and family are unique.
Still, Gracye McCoy suggests you can draw confidence from one indisputable truth: “Ultimately, you can’t let any parent take away the fact that you have trained to be in the classroom. Never forget that you are the professional.”
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Illustration: Michael Klein
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