Ask any teacher in public school what the most challenging part of his or her job is, and one of the top answers is likely to be related to dealing with pushy parents. There has been a lot of research and conjecture about how parenting went from quite passive a few decades ago, to, for many, alarmingly active. Some of the key answers to this mystery seem targeted at the parents themselves, who, having lived through lean years in the 70’s, became generous with all manner of resources, especially time, in their adulthood. Or perhaps in the decades following the release of A Nation at Risk (1983), parents are pressured to think far more about the future of their little cherubs and the economic prospects that an “at-risk” nation might deploy.
But what if after all these years of blaming permissive parenting, liberal policies or the downfall of society, the problem was aided, ironically, by the very group who seems besieged by it today.
I’d like to submit a few observations about how many current teaching practices are creating the problem of overzealous “helicopter” parenting.
Educators have seen the connection between engagement by parents at home and success in school for some time. The goal, then, became getting parents more involved, especially those who were not engaged at all. This was, and is, a noble and rational desire, but one I feel does more harm than good. This may be a curious stance, but in truth, it seems very logical when spelled out. The harm here is not getting parents involved, but more the methods that have been frequently used to involve them. Let’s look at a few common strategies teachers and entire school systems use to get parents involved in education:
- Sending home homework requiring parental input/involvement and then grading the result
- Sending home books or materials the parent is to read or work on with the child
- Creating planners that are to be signed daily by parents and teachers, meant for home/school communication
- Assigning projects that would reasonably require time or materials from the parents
- Requiring conferences or other communication
- Expectations of regular log-ins to online grading programs
- Take-home reading or exercise logs
Chances are, most public schools employ one or more of these strategies to instigate parent involvement. Again, the goal is noble, and I see no problem with trying to get parents more involved. But step back a moment and look at that list for a moment. Who is being evaluated? Parent or child? Both. While these are realistic and reasonable goals, it must be observed that the results of many or most of these efforts affect the student’s grade in some way. For students who STILL have no parental involvement, it becomes very easy to allow the child to fail and then blame the parent. For other students, it creates anxiety for parents who feel that not only is the child being evaluated; mom and dad are being evaluated as well.
A story from a friend of mine seems to sum it up nicely:
We just had conferences last night for Adam. His test scores are pretty good, state assessments are above average, but he’s pulling C’s and D’s because apparently he’s had this homework that we are supposed to do with him, but he never said anything about it. On top of that, we haven’t been signing his agenda book, and he also had a book to read, and he lost it, so he didn’t mention that. I was upset at Adam, but the teacher didn’t look too impressed by us. I feel like all three of us are failing 4th grade.
So what does this tell us? The parents here are busy and don’t always know what the assignments are for their child, and so the child’s grade suffered. The child, for whatever reason is not entirely forthcoming about his responsibilities at home. Hardly unique. They slacked, and now their child is paying the price.
But what does that tell the child? You are a poor student? Mommy and Daddy don’t love you enough to look at your agenda book? If you keep your mouth shut, the blame will eventually get shifted to Mom and Pop?
Parents and children are too often sharing a grade. The student is getting graded on organization, completion, and effort, which is intimately tied to the effort and involvement of the parent. I don’t think this is the situation that best serves the student, and I really don’t believe it does much for parenting either.
What it does do is it trains parents to think of a child in school the same way they would think of themselves in school. So, if your child was the one getting the grades for your behavior, it stands to reason that you would take a different sort of ownership of that. This really goes a long way in explaining why some parents do work for their children, why they over-react at low test grades, and generally hover over the educational process…because they feel they have to in order to get a good grade in parenting.
I’m not sure I can offer a really exceptional solution, but I am reasonably certain that the first step is to divorce the concepts of assessment (of any kind) and parent involvement. We don’t want to stop encouraging parents to be involved with education, that’s hardly the message. Nevertheless, we cannot continue to penalize or reward the students based on any measure of how much time, effort, or energy the parents are willing to give at home. Some parents MUST work or attend school during the evenings and cannot connect with students every evening. Some are parents and grandparents overwhelmed by keeping track of several children. Some simply assume that if the student struggles, the school will give the student help until there is a remedy (novel idea). Some are not themselves well organized or scholarly, and struggle with the very tasks the students struggle with. Regardless, I think educators as a whole need to find more effective ways of inviting parents to become involved in their child’s education rather than simply positive and negative reinforcement by proxy.