When Parents Crush Teachers

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The other day, I was walking back to my classroom to gather my stuff and go home. It was 4 p.m., and school had ended at 2:05.

I decided to stop and talk to a well-respected colleague, an excellent teacher who goes above and beyond the call of duty and is popular with her students. We talked for a few minutes, and then she dropped a bombshell.

She told me she was thinking of leaving teaching. I pretended to be happy that she might have found something that she liked better, and I asked her why she wanted to change jobs. She answered: "Parents."

I know what many of you are thinking -- parents just are not involved enough in their children's educations. But that is not the case in the D.C. area's metropolitan suburbs. The parents about whom I am talking are the overinvolved parents. They are "contact you every day," "argue every problem marked wrong" and "my child is perfect" parents. These parents are so aggressive that they are driving many of my best colleagues out of the profession.

Let me be clear: The vast majority of parents with whom we deal are wonderful and supportive. However, a rapidly growing minority is having a real, negative impact on schools, and the teaching profession, by being too involved in their children's lives. Today, I spoke with a retired teacher who began her career in the early 1970s. She told me that, for the first 25 years of teaching, she never heard from parents whether her students were earning A's or F's. This was not because parents didn't care, but because they knew that the grades their children received were an accurate reflection of the time and effort they put in. However, she said, by the mid-'90s, there had been a shift. Parents began to micromanage not only their children's lives but those of their teachers as well.

The sad reality is that this is taking a toll on the teaching profession. Teachers should not spend more time talking to parents than to students. Another colleague, one of the best teachers I know, had a student last year who did little work during a quarter. She decided to give the child a chance to make up the unfinished assignments, but she told both the parent and the student that she would not do so again. So when the same thing happened the following quarter, my colleague put her foot down.

The result? The parent promptly went to the principal and demanded that the child be allowed to make up the work to get a better grade. After much back and forth, the principal agreed.

For my colleague, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. She was willing to work long hours to develop dynamic lessons, to tutor students and to give second chances. But continually to allow students to make the same mistake? At this point, she knew, a school isn't helping its students; it's hurting them. What happened to high standards? My colleague began to consider another career.

Most educators I have talked to entered the field for noble reasons. They wanted to work with children and to make a difference in their lives. They didn't go into teaching to spend all day working with a few pushy parents. This year, I taught a student whose mother wanted to meet with all seven of her child's teachers on what seemed like a weekly basis. Each week, she accused us of not reaching out to her son, saying things like, "You don't like my child." She made unreasonable demands. "My child refuses to do work in class. Just make him do the work." She told us that her son would not do his homework at home and that we should stay after school to see that he did it. It seems as if we have created an "excuse bank" for children, so that teachers are to blame if they fail and not the students themselves.

Can our schools sustain this kind of attrition? Can we compound all of the burdens that are placed upon educators by adding overly meddlesome parents to the list and expect to attract top people to our profession? Personally, I don't think so. How do you do that when we are already losing our best and brightest?

Meanwhile, I have to figure out how to convince my two parent-weary colleagues that they picked the right profession.

-- Steven Rothman


The writer is a teacher in the Fairfax County public schools.

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