Q: I love parents, I really do. I’m a middle school English teacher, and my students do better when they go home to involved, caring parents. Except lately it seems like there are so many parents who have trouble knowing where their child’s life ends and their own begins. These are the parents who want me to send updates whenever their child gets less than a perfect grade, or when anything whatsoever goes awry. I don’t know why the grades I post online regularly are not sufficient markers of progress, or why they can’t just talk to their kids themselves. They show up in my classroom unannounced and expect an instant conference, or they send me e-mails day and night. The behavior that bothers me the most is when they sweet talk me to my face, telling me how grateful they are that I consistently go above and beyond, then undermine me to the principal the second they are displeased by some minor nothing. I’m patient to a point, and I think I’ve hit that point. It doesn’t just hurt me, it hurts the students. Some of the kids wait for their parents to fix every problem and crumble under the slightest pressure. Can you give me a script or some words of wisdom so I don’t lose my temper with the next helicopter parent?
A: You sound like a hard-working and devoted teacher, and I think your generosity is contributing to your burnout. You may need to revisit your boundaries, at least with this type of parent. If you do, you’ll feel less fried and your students will develop resilience and resourcefulness. Parents will benefit, too, because intensely micromanaging their children isn’t healthy for them, either.
Helicoptering is fueled by both love and anxiety. If you want to end the cycle, you can’t add to parents’ stress. You need to have empathy and understand that their children are the center of their lives. They see their role as protector and don’t have your emotional distance. Children need to stumble in order to learn, but that can feel counterintuitive to parents.
So how can you strike that balance? First, be a good listener. Be curious, respectful and nonjudgmental. Dr. Jack Smith, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, says that when parents call schools, teachers can avoid conflict and build trust by asking a series of questions. It’s an idea he got from a novel, and it stuck with him.
“Don’t jump straight to a declarative sentence,” Smith says. “Instead of saying ‘That’s not our policy,’ ask ‘What’s been happening over the last few days? Why do you have concerns?’ I can’t imagine you’re not going to have a better conversation, and sometimes you learn important information in that initial conversation.”
Once you’ve asked several questions, reflect parents’ feelings. Acknowledge that they’re upset or worried. Step into their shoes and show that you care. Emphasize the positive and seize any opportunities to be reassuring. What do you like about their kid? How has their child been growing or responding to challenges? Be authentic and genuine and remember that everyone has areas of strength. Try to find concrete examples. More importantly, don’t wait until parents contact you. Have good communication when things are going well. And to the extent possible, resolve tricky stuff in person or over the phone. So much gets lost in translation over e-mail.
Tone and body language are important, too. Stay calm and even-keeled and maintain eye contact. Be confident and don’t let anyone intimidate you. You have authority and expertise. There’s no need to be defensive when you explain your grading, homework or any other policy. Hopefully, your supervisor will back you up if/when parents complain. On the flip side, be gracious and own any mistakes. They happen. Hopefully, you can establish a dynamic where everyone errs on the side of forgiveness. There’s no need for anyone to be punitive.
Although it may be tempting to aim for no contact, this is likely to backfire. Instead, schedule regular check-ins. Perhaps you send home a weekly e-mail, or plan to meet in person every six weeks. Proactively involve parents in problem-solving. Explain your teaching philosophy and try to get them on board. Hopefully, they’ll believe the situation is under control and will be less likely to randomly drop in on you.
Parents can be a source of frustration, but as you said, they also can be a source of support. There will always be parents who try your patience, but don’t take it personally. In the end, it has very little to do with you. Much like teaching, parenting isn’t an easy job.
Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to firstname.lastname@example.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers.