Bestselling author Lisa Bloom discusses a teacher's worst nightmare: helicopter parents—the ones who rescue their son at a moment's notice. Teachers teach for one reason: They care about educating children. So parents need to support and respect teachers.
Parent-teacher conferences are ideally a time for positive communication and generating viable solutions—which means respecting your child’s teacher and being open to constructive criticism about your child.
Unwittingly, many parents undermine their children’s teachers. This must stop.
“American Teacher of the Year” Ron Clark wrote a CNN.com piece that resonated so strongly with teachers and parents that it was the number-two most-shared article of the year on Facebook in 2011, second only to news images of the devastating Japan earthquake. “What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents” boiled down to this plea: Support us. Trust us. Don’t work against us behind our backs. And don’t make excuses for your son unless you want him to grow up jobless and living on your couch at age 25.
I second the motion.
“What’s the hardest part about teaching?” I asked California Charter Teacher of the Year Brad Koepenick. “Parents,” he said, without missing a beat. I’d just spoken to a few of his students, teenage boys being raised by single moms working two or three jobs. These boys missed their mothers and wished they were around more. Their fathers were largely absent altogether. I thought of them. “Absentee parents, you mean?” I asked. “Oh, no, absentee parents I can deal with,” Brad said. “It’s the helicopter parents I can’t stand. They do nothing but undermine us.”
Parents always hovering about, ready to swoop in and rescue their boy at a moment’s notice—helicopter parents—are a teacher’s worst nightmare: moms who challenge the teacher when the kid gets reprimanded for acting up or dads who march in to demand their child’s grade be raised because he’s so misunderstood.
Sidestep your defensive reaction and take criticism of your son seriously.
Teachers are professionals who spend a lot of time with your boy. They see him in an entirely different environment than you do, which explains why sometimes parents are baffled by a school report that their son is overly sociable in class (but at home he’s so reclusive) or, alternatively, that he’s a holy terror (at home he mostly sleeps!—sure, gearing up for the next day’s onslaught). School stimulates, challenges, annoys, and excites your boy in ways unmatched by your home environment, which is, let’s face it, mainly same ol’, same ol’. So of course he behaves differently there.
Thus, when your son’s teacher tells you he acted up in class, or he smacked Raj or Kevin, or he didn’t turn in his homework for a week, or he’s mouthing off, believe it. As teacher Ron Clark pleads, do not turn to your son and say, “Is this true?” It is true. The teacher just said so. He’s not in the business of making up stories about 7-year-olds. What motive would he have to do that? Do not undermine your teacher’s authority in the presence of your boy. His respecting the teacher’s authority is critical to the teacher’s ability to maintain control over your boy and the entire classroom. Teacher and parent should be what we call in the law “allied in interest”—on the same side, working for your boy’s healthy development.
Sometimes that can include punishment. If he gets sent to detention, the worst thing a parent can do is storm into the school to demand a reversal of the sentence. You are not a defense attorney (if you are, let your spouse handle the situation). You are a parent, and that means accepting that your son will learn best when he suffers the consequences of his actions. Remove those consequences, and you’ve deprived him of the lesson.
When a teacher tells you there’s a problem with your son, she is sticking her neck out and doing you a favor. She knows parents don’t like to hear complaints. She knows she may get push-back. How much easier would it be for her just to give everyone an “A” and turn a blind eye to the slackers and miscreants? Then she’d be popular and well-liked. The truly caring teacher takes the rockier path of calling out kids when they deserve it and notifying parents promptly when their kids need correcting. Thank her for providing this service to you. Kids are works in progress; she is helping you see where work remains to be done.
Parents and teachers need mutual respect.
"When a teacher tells you
there's a problem with your
son, she is sticking her neck
out and doing you a favor."
Some children become pint-sized psychologists, offering excuses and justifications for their own bad behavior. The teacher is mean! I wasn’t feeling well! You made me visit Grandma so I didn’t have time to do my homework! I can’t work in that environment! They’re always the victim—don’t fall for it. And don’t egg them on by offering up those excuses to the teacher. Instead, help your son succeed by teaching him strategies to behave well and do his work even if. Even if you aren’t 100 percent thrilled with your teacher (which is probably because she is intolerant of his misdeeds), you need to take a deep breath, show respect, and do the assignments. Even if we have family time, you still need to do your homework. Next time don’t wait until the last minute to complete it, and let’s communicate better about weekend time so we can both accomplish everything we need to get done, okay?
School is his priority, and his teacher is the expert on how he’s doing there. She’s the one with the advanced education degree and many hours of continuing education and classroom experience, and she’s the adult who personally observes him in the schoolroom all day long. Defer to her judgment.
If you have a genuine issue with your son’s teacher, do not discuss a word of it with your son. Your relationship with your kid’s teacher should be roughly comparable to that of divorced parents. Though you don’t live together, you need to communicate often and amicably, consider yourselves on the same team working together for your kid’s success, smoothly hand off your kid one to the other, and never, ever bad-mouth one another in front of your child. Instead, when a concern arises with your child’s teacher, make an appointment to show respect for her time and schedule, go in without your child, and discuss it privately as adults. Begin and end the discussion with your appreciation for the time and effort she puts in every day on behalf of your child. If the issue is serious and you get no satisfaction after talking with the teacher, make an appointment and discuss it calmly and privately with the principal. To the greatest extent possible, leave your kid out of it.
The quality of your teacher impacts your role.
Supporting your son’s teacher is especially important if he is lucky enough to have a great one. According to a remarkable new Harvard University study that tracked one million children from fourth grade to adulthood, a strong teacher (defined as one better than 84 percent of peers) not only teaches your son a great deal more in the short term, boosting his test scores in the areas taught, but the teacher gives your son some impressive long-lasting benefits. Students from classrooms with great teachers are more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, live in better neighborhoods, and save more for retirement. They are even less likely to have children as teenagers. One skilled fourth-grade teacher can make that much of a difference in your son’s life.
Most of us can tell immediately when our kid is blessed with a teacher like this. He is energetic, creative, fun, yet in control of his classroom at all times. Kids lucky enough to have great teachers come home chattering about school, eager to show off their classwork. They spout off historical facts in carpool and announce they’re going to learn some Mandarin over winter break just for fun.
But what if—more likely—your kid lands in an average teacher’s classroom or, worse, he suffers from a truly dreadful, bottom-of-the-barrel teacher? If you recognize a serious problem early enough in the school year, ask the principal to move your son to another class. Given how important a teacher is to your son’s education, his attitude about school, and his ability to learn and succeed, this is worth doing. If that’s not possible and he’s stuck in that classroom, give that teacher even more support. After school, supplement your child’s learning with enrichment programs and tutoring.
In short, value every day of your son’s education. Cherish days he gets with quality teachers, and supplement days he’s enduring with subpar ones. Pack each day with as many tantalizing educational moments as you can while his brain is still developing.
Our teachers are on the front lines, struggling daily with low wages for only one reason: because they care about educating kids. No parent enjoys hearing criticism of her children. But we must listen to our teachers’ advice, praise, guidance, and, yes, suggestions for improvement. Leave the helicoptering for the landing strip. Partner with teachers, respect them, and work together as a team for the best interests of your kid. Because in this climate of diminished educational expectations, your son needs all the help he can get.
Lisa Bloom is an award-winning journalist, mom of two, legal analyst for The Today Show and Avvo.com, and author of Swagger, from which the above is excerpted with permission. Find more information at lisabloom.com. Read an excerpt from Bloom’s New York Times bestselling Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, about work-life balance, at nymetroparents.com/think.