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A Teacher's Field Guide to Parents | Ecology of Education

A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents

Teachers would be foolhardy to label parents as either good or bad.

Not all parents are created equal and cannot be categorized on a single spectrum.  To do so would jeopardize a teacher’s ability to survive. Literally.  I mean, I’m talking life or death here.

You see, when normally mild mannered and reasonable people become parents they take on a condition that shapes their behavior. In medical circles, that condition is known as neurosis.

One parent, whom I see every morning in the mirror, told me, “We’re like werewolves, transfigured by parenthood.” (Judging by the bags under his eyes, I’d have to agree.)

Knowing this, we teachers must be careful when working with us parents.  It may be the most dangerous part of our jobs and we need to be prepared for any type of exposure we are likely to face.

So below is an very incomplete field guide to some of the more extreme types of parents that both new & veteran teachers might come across, along with some handling strategies. With over a gazillion types of parents, it would be impossible to profile them all.  Indeed, they are as hard to standardize as students and/or teachers. With this in mind, please be advised that this list is not representative of the majority of parents, just a select minority.

Please feel free to add additional parent types or handling ideas in the comment section. Or, consider working with the good folks over at Parentella to create a Parent’s Guide to Teachers.

1. Burger King Parents

Characteristic markings: They want it their way, right away.

Identifying behaviors: “I sent you that e-mail (8 seconds ago), have you responded yet?” or “I know class is about to start, so I’ll only take a few minutes of your  time.”

What you might want to say: “Sorry, this is not drive thru schooling. I’ll get back to you after I grade papers, plan lessons, and pick up the room. Ta-ta.”

What you should NOT say: “You want fries with that?”

What you might say: “Oh, no, sorry. I’ll do my best to get back to you in the next 24 hours.”

Handling Strategy: Appeasement and deflection. Buy time for yourself and set boundaries. Let parents know at the start of school how to begin a conversation with you. I encourage parents to ask me, “Do you have a minute right now, or should we schedule a time to talk about my child?”

2. Chicken Little Parents

Characteristic markings: “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”

Identifying behaviors: Overreact to the slightest perceived shortcoming of the teacher and/or school.

What you might want to say: “Relax. No one died. No one’s gonna die. Everyone is fine. Breathe. And remember, it could be worse.”

What you should NOT say: “Get the flip over it and stop dosing your coffee with methamphetamine.”

What you might say: “Thank you for bringing that to my attention. I’ll look into it right away.”

Handling strategy: Containment & reassurance. Respond with calm coolness. Have them sit, offer a cup of water or cheez-its, and get all the facts. Listen (or at least appear to). A warm hand on the upper back as they leave may help. (Just don’t accidentally push them out the door.)

Field notes: These are parents who need to leave school more relaxed than they arrived.  If allowed to fester, their fervor, even if completely irrational, is contagious.

3. Flintstone Parents

Also Known As: Rose-Colored-Past Parents

Characteristic markings: Often begins complaints with, “When I was in _____ grade . . . “

Identifying behaviors: Employs a grand vision of their own past. For example: Remembers their 4th grade essay being a brilliant 5 page exposition exploring the recovering economy of post-war Germany when it was actually 3 paragraphs comparing & contrasting orange juice and Tang.

What you might want to say: “Awesome! Any chance you still have it? I’ll bet the kids would love it if you’d come read it to them and then tell them what life was like when you were their age!”

What you should NOT say: “Would you get over yourself already? Self-aggrandizement based on hyperbolized memories just sets unrealistic & unmeetable expectations for your child. It can actually do more harm than good. You know how your childhood house seems so large in your memory? Same thing going on here, Doogie Howser.”

What you might say: “This could be a case of comparing apples to oranges. When we were growing up, there was one medium for aquiring and distributing information (books). Writing projects reflected that. Today, with information being widely available in multiple formats, it is important that our projects reflect that reality. Your child’s project looks different from yours because there were different guidelines and different objectives. Would you like to discuss the goals of the assignment?”

Handling Strategy: Give them props for their accomplishments (and their imagination) and then try to help them see the merits of what their child is doing. Encourage them, when looking at their child’s work to focus first on something they connect with about it, before furrowing their brow and telling their kid how it could be better.

4. The Grass is Greener Parents

Characteristic markings: See another place as being better than where they are. Meaning, they see other classrooms/schools as better than yours.

Identifying Behaviors: Under the guise of “helping” they provide updates on what other classrooms/schools are doing that you are not.

What you might want to say: “I notice you don’t mention all the things we are doing that others are not. Is that on purpose?”

What you should NOT say: “I hope you don’t say the same sort of stuff to your kids. That makes you one of ‘those’ parents that no-one wants to be.”

What you might say: “Oh, really? Huh. I didn’t know that. That gives me some ideas for what we can do in the future.  Thank you!”

Field Notes: These are the folks who are not afraid to mention this when they run into you at the library while you are with your own children.  Remember that they mean well and don’t take it personally. They do the same thing to others.  It’s not just you.

5. The Barometer Parents

Characteristic markings: Able to assess and report the mood among other parents and/or students.

Identifying Behaviors: Privately comes forward with information about what is going on that you don’t know about, but probably should.

What you might want to say: “Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention.  I was not aware folks felt that way. I’ll try to address the matter ASAP.”

What you should NOT say: “So? I don’t care.”

What you might say: “Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention.  I was not aware folks felt that way. I’ll try to address the matter ASAP.”

Field notes: These are a must find, each year.

Handling Strategy: Barometer Parents are allies.  You want one, or two, each and every year. Find someone you communicate well with, who is connected to other parents and can be discreet. Ask them if they will let you know (without naming names) if there is any back-channel talking/complaining going on between parents that you need to address.

The rationale: Some grumbling and venting is understandable & healthy between parents. However, grumbling & venting on the same subject over and over without communicating with the teacher can be detrimental to the students and the health of the class, especially if it grows out of control.  If the teacher knows what’s going on, he/she can do something about it.

6. The Perfectionist Parents

Characteristic markings: Focuses on the empty part of a mostly full cup.

Identifying behaviors: No matter how well things are going, they are always able to find something you could and should be doing better.

What you might want to say: “Really?! All this cool stuff going on, and you’re focusing on that?!”

What you should NOT say: “Do you do this to your child? Is this why they struggle to take constructive criticism? How many ambien does it take for you to go to sleep at night?”

What you might say: “That’s a great inisight.  I am always looking for ways to improve my units and projects.  I’ll make a note of your suggestion(s) for next year. Thanks!”

Handling strategy: Perfectionists are notoriously neurotic about, well, perfection. Their fervor is fed by Martha Stewart magazines & Pottery Barn catalogues that depict life as ordered and flawless. Self-depricating humor often settles their insistence that your world be as perfect as they envision. (Full disclosure: I’m married to a recovering perfectionist.)

7. Bueller Parents

Characteristic markings: Absent all together.

Identifying behaviors: Try this call, “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” If you hear nothing in response, you’ve got a Bueller Parent.

What you might want to say: “I hope you are more involved with your kids at home than you are at school.”

What you should NOT say: “What’s your problem? Get off your duff, brush off whatever ‘I hate school’ leftovers you have from high school, and get involved, ya bum!”

What you might say: “Hi so-n-so. This is so-n-so’s teacher.  I just called to tell you how much I am really enjoying your son/daughter. She/He is really engaging, has some great insights, and shows fantastic potential. I hope she’s/he’s talking about what we are doing in school. Please feel free to call me if you have any questions. My cell phone number is…”

Handling strategy: Kid gloves & baby steps. First step — Contact (keep it short & positive). Second step — Engagement. Third step: Ongoing relationship building.

These seven are by no means comprehensive, and like students, we’d be fools to standardize our expectations of parents.  Each parent is unique and should be treated as such, lest we activate the beast within! Additionally, connecting with parents helps teachers capitalize on opportunities to bridge the gap between home & school, helping to make learning more relevant and personal.

Plus, getting and keeping parents on your side can only work to your advantage with the students.

(Note: This is a work of tongue-in-cheek theory based on 9 years of falling in love with students and their families. Any resemblance to actual parents is purely coincidental.)
Image: LWVOR

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Author:Jason Flom

Learner. Educator. Reader. Writer. Cyclist. Part-time Polyanna. Husband. Daddy. Founder, Ecology of Education. Director of Learning Platforms, Q.E.D. Foundation. Twitter: @JasonFlom. LinkedIn: Jason Flom; Edutopia's Green School Group; and doing dishes while pretending to be a professional underground rapper. "I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion." Kurt Hahn
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  • http://twitter.com/lekahe/status/21178732510 Leena

    RT @raesmaa: A Teachers' Field Guide to Parents http://bit.ly/dmZhgd /via @MmeVeilleux #edu

  • Pingback: A Parent’s Field Guide to Parents | Parentella

  • http://twitter.com/web20classroom/status/21228429861 Steven W. Anderson

    A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents | Ecology of Education http://bit.ly/c5cvb0

  • http://twitter.com/sanmccarron/status/21228674292 Sandra McCarron

    This is a great post! RT @web20classroom A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents | Ecology of Education http://bit.ly/c5cvb0

  • April

    And here's a parent's response: http://blog.parentella.com/2010/a-parents-field

    • Mixolydianinflorida

      Right on. I landed here because I’m having trouble communicating with my child’s teacher. I think Jason was trying to be funny but I felt insulted. I prefer April’s list.

  • http://twitter.com/maggiev/status/21256220077 Maggie Verster

    RT @ShellTerrell: A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents http://bit.ly/any8ZL via @charlie1312 #education

  • Pingback: Parents field guide to parents | Parents as Partners

  • http://twitter.com/motherunner sarah wassinger

    Oh how we LOVE labels. I can only imagine the field guide for kids. I identify a little bit with every category above. Please don’t put me in a can of tuna.

  • http://twitter.com/jasonflom/status/21305714063 Jason Flom

    A parent's response on @Parentella (http://bit.ly/bB9tew) to my "Teacher's Field Guide to Parents" (http://bit.ly/dmZhgd) #parenting #edchat

  • Anonymous

    Ha-ha. Not to worry! No tuna canning going on around here. I think most of us parents have a bit of each of these in us.

  • Tina

    Ha, I’m a parent who always worry about being THAT parent. You know, THAT one. I have parts of all of the above (I’m not a teacher, but I have worked in education). It is amazing how absolutely sane people go a leetle, teeny bit nutso when their kids are involved. Thanks for making me laugh. :)

  • http://twitter.com/adinasullivan/status/21456720550 Adina Sullivan

    A Teacher's Field Guide to Parents http://bit.ly/crjlT1

  • http://twitter.com/baibbb/status/21477322562 Baiba Svenca

    A Teacher's Field Guide to Parents – http://b2l.me/ag27rd (via @Eco_of_Ed)

  • http://twitter.com/educatoral/status/21689112558 Alfonso Gonzalez

    A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents http://j.mp/9rAvHM via Jason Flom

  • http://twitter.com/swedishteacher/status/21732345611 Jesper/Jazzper

    A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents http://is.gd/etKLT

  • http://twitter.com/web20classroom/status/21744609434 Steven W. Anderson

    A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents http://is.gd/eubY9

  • susan price

    great post… how about the tj maxx one: “You want the max for the minimum” (at tj maxx).. i love the responses… very helpful.. thank you.

  • Kimberly Wagner

    I very much enjoyed these descriptions, especially the what you want to say but shouldn’t! I recognized all types and, sadly, they were almost always of honours students…(except the absent parent). The absent parent was predominant in non-honours and lower level classes, so I try to accept the overactive parent because although sometimes time consuming and annoying, they certainly mean well!

  • RITE729

    As a veteran teacher, I really appreciated your article and chuckled more than once. Lots of good practical advice packed with the humor!

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  • http://twitter.com/jasonflom/status/22174009476 Jason Flom

    @vodkamom Just found u & your blog (via @parentella). Funny stuff. U might like this teacher's guide 2 parents. http://bit.ly/dmZhgd Cheers.

  • http://twitter.com/simpleceo/status/22294249529 Michael Werner

    A teacher's field guide to parents… http://bit.ly/97rHiT

  • http://twitter.com/web20classroom/status/22295368665 Steven W. Anderson

    RT @SimpleCEO: A teacher's field guide to parents… http://bit.ly/97rHiT

  • http://twitter.com/ieanea/status/22299201628 IEANEA

    RT @SimpleCEO: A teacher's field guide to parents… http://bit.ly/97rHiT

  • http://twitter.com/twilberd/status/22302983452 Thomas A Wilberding

    RT @SimpleCEO: A teacher's field guide to parents… http://bit.ly/97rHiT

  • http://twitter.com/myleejoseph/status/22305227162 Mylee Joseph

    RT @SimpleCEO: A teacher's field guide to parents… http://bit.ly/97rHiT

  • http://twitter.com/aliacys/status/22305266844 ALIA CYS

    RT @SimpleCEO A teacher's field guide to parents… http://bit.ly/97rHiT — works for librarians too!

  • http://twitter.com/arcticlass/status/22366548475 Sharon Somerville

    RT @EduDGK: Fantastic article! RT @SimpleCEO: A teacher's field guide to parents… http://bit.ly/97rHiT

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  • http://twitter.com/sharon_elin Sharon Elin

    One important parent type that could be added, in my opinion, is the Pit Bull Parent who wants to attack and bring down a teacher simply as a blood sport — or maybe because of a bad personal experience in school years before; who knows? I’ve only experienced one teeth-baring parent like this, but I’ve been witness to several who circled some colleagues — they focus in on a teacher and find every infraction and injustice they can find, then report it to the administration and demand consequences, rarely speaking directly to the teacher about it. The solution? There really isn’t one but it helps to learn defusing tactics, bite your tongue, and communicate with the administration before the parents do.

  • http://twitter.com/whatedsaid/status/22400402143 Edna Sackson

    RT @surreallyno: Ha ha ha! The best guide 4 parents I EVER read! http://tinyurl.com/36wprav I should print this!

  • http://twitter.com/jasonflom/status/22552706421 Jason Flom

    @FreeRangeKids You might get a chuckle (or gnashed teeth) out of this Teacher's Field Guide to Parents http://bit.ly/dmZhgd Cheers.

  • http://twitter.com/retorta/status/23148436113 Mario Pires

    [#Education] A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents | Ecology of Education http://ow.ly/2zYLN

  • http://bluedeals.info Austin Kreutzbender

    @Mike You make a great point

  • Cathy Williams

    hehehehe:) wow I love your categorization of parents. Its fun to read and really interesting and factual based especially Flintstone parents.
    Keep posting entertaining posts

  • http://twitter.com/ieanea/status/27250936467 IEANEA

    RT @Eco_of_Ed: A Teacher's Field Guide to Parents http://bit.ly/dyQ9gs

  • http://twitter.com/teachhub/status/27251415208 TeachHUB

    RT @ieanea RT @Eco_of_Ed: A Teacher's Field Guide to Parents http://bit.ly/dyQ9gs

  • Ed

    The teacher as parent needs to be added. This parent is the best ally of a good teacher and the worst fear of a bad teacher. We’ve been there and done that and will not take mediocre teachers lightly and will be the worst nightmare of persons with weapons-grade stupidity holding the job of a teacher.

  • Ed

    The teacher as parent needs to be added. This parent is the best ally of a good teacher and the worst fear of a bad teacher. We’ve been there and done that and will not take mediocre teachers lightly and will be the worst nightmare of persons with weapons-grade stupidity holding the job of a teacher.

  • http://twitter.com/jasonflom/status/28057823008 Jason Flom

    @amandacdykes There might be a laugh in here somewhere. http://bit.ly/dmZhgd Cheers.

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  • http://twitter.com/lianabrooks/status/100640848454234112 Liana Brooks

    A teacher's field guide to parents: http://t.co/apc3eRU

  • http://twitter.com/mcleod/status/101421936281780224 Scott McLeod

    A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents http://su.pr/9KlvXj #edchat

  • http://twitter.com/hybridmom/status/102890220025946112 Hybrid Mom

    A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents http://t.co/uOWhQOt

  • http://twitter.com/jasonflom/status/103504838867947520 Jason Flom

    It's that time of year again: "A Teacher's Field Guide to Parents" http://t.co/pUiqgjy #ntchat #teaching #humor

  • http://www.toddalbert.com Todd Albert

    Awesome post! Unfortunately I’m more likely to blurt out the “What you might want to say” lines, so I’ll have to keep this guide handy!

  • Alexander Zilo

    All teachers. parents and students should watch ” FORKS OVER KNIVES ” – It is a life changing experience.

  • http://twitter.com/web20classroom/status/123771839611805696 Steven W. Anderson

    A Teacher's Field Guide To Parents: http://t.co/hprBL27u

  • http://twitter.com/nancyrubin/status/123772532653432833 nancyrubin

    RT @web20classroom: A Teacher's Field Guide To Parents: http://t.co/bbz72klo

  • http://twitter.com/juliavtaylor/status/123777170828042240 Julia V. Taylor

    RT @web20classroom: A Teacher's Field Guide To Parents: http://t.co/FMOzdMHJ

  • http://twitter.com/educatoral/status/123780421824688128 Alfonso Gonzalez

    RT @web20classroom A Teacher's Field Guide To Parents: http://t.co/HkCkzpwD

  • http://twitter.com/briankotts/status/123820264378212353 @briankotts

    lol!! A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents http://t.co/7L6TQRpY /via @Eco_of_ED #edchat #ukedchat

  • http://twitter.com/tonnet/status/123938800597606401 Milton Ramirez

    RT @web20classroom: A Teacher's Field Guide To Parents: http://t.co/oF5ql8yl

  • http://twitter.com/edubeat/status/123980295534952449 EDUBEAT

    A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents http://t.co/AsSyTpaT (via @summify from Alfonso Gonzalez, and Milton Ramirez)

  • Janet | expateducator.com

    This is very timely. Not only did I need to laugh, I should keep these in mind as I work through a particularly tricky parent/teacher conference this next week – I’m not terribly sure how this parent will react to not-so-good news.

    What I know for sure…I began treating parent/teacher conferences very differently after attending the first one as a step-parent. 

    Janet | expateducator.com

  • http://twitter.com/dropoutnation/status/130319914870374400 RiShawn Biddle

    RT @afemn @dropoutnation talks #ParentPower (http://t.co/JrtAX1vC )/links to revealing post on teachers view of parents http://t.co/mMAgF2MG

  • http://twitter.com/thekyleguy/status/166957000247345153 Kyle Lichtenwald

    A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents http://t.co/RnQjYzj7

  • Nikim1806

    I have one child in
    college and one in 6th grade so I have met a wide variety of teachers.

    The ‘counting the days’
    teacher: has put in 30 years and this is my last so I don’t care. Email me all
    you want because I’m not changing anything.

    The ‘I just got my
    degree’ teacher: I’m mainlining coffee and have a billion ideas and they all
    involve parent involvement and since I know you, like me, have nothing to do
    this will be great big supper fun!

    The ‘did you ace early
    childhood development’ teacher: I have known your child for 4 weeks and now
    know them better than you.  Don’t bother
    trying to explain anything to me; I stopped listening 20 minutes ago.

    The ‘I’m busy’
    teacher:  you have no idea how hard it is
    to be a teacher, no one else works 60 hour weeks! Every response you get from
    me will be short and terse.

    And the very rare ‘mentally
    stable’ teacher: I have enough experience to be realistic but haven’t become bitter;
    you can find me next to the unicorn in the land of marshmallows.

  • http://twitter.com/timrylands/status/206411145354031105 Tim Rylands

    A Teacher’s Field Guide to Parents: http://t.co/LzCe5nyp

  • teacher1

    I AM a teacher. Your list is almost to the correct!  I wish parents would let us teach or they should go back and get THEIR degree. We teach for the kids, we dont teach because we hate kids. Parents remember that when you are mad because a teacher GAVE your child a bad grade. How about encouraging your child to study instead? 

  • http://twitter.com/web20classroom/status/237199242853228544 Steven W. Anderson

    A Teacher's Field Guide To Parents: http://t.co/hprxds6A #ptchat

  • Jess

    I love this post!  I know exactly what you mean with these types but what I love is ideas of how to handle each one.  Really well-done.  I’m going to print and put in my binder for reminding myself of how to deal with some situations.  Awesome and funny.  Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/jimenochas/status/237201236917628928 Ji

    A Teacher's Field Guide To Parents: http://t.co/hprxds6A #ptchat

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  • http://twitter.com/ileducprof/status/273104644383838208 Venus Evans-Winters

    A Teacher's Field Guide to Parents http://t.co/vx17PpRp <<I guess students get it from their parents #BlackEdu