13 Aug 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.)