Our students’ parents have ‘evolved’ and it impacts the classroom

  • by Dr. Tim Mullen - Mon, 09/11/2017 - 23:55

The lessons about the value of learning, self-sufficiency, and respect for others taught by parents are much more powerful and influential than any lesson an educator can teach in the classroom. And their impact on their child is profound. However, it has changed over the years to create such a wide spectrum of parent perceptions of education, teachers, and schools that teachers are becoming increasingly stressed by their interactions with their students’ parents.

How did this come to be? I think that, as a society, some measure of parents lost touch with the fact that they, and not teachers, are the number one educators of their children. This was true 50 years ago, and it is true today. Some parents seem to understand this, but increasingly some don’t. Media, elected officials, and community leaders have criticized schools and teachers so much that it has become many parents own perceptions, unconsciously

In all my years working with students and parents, considering the multitude of personal and societal influences facing our families, and the fact that we become the sum of our experiences, I theorize that parents fall loosely into six categories.

1. The Supportive and Involved. These parents are true partners with us in their child’s education. They help their child with school work, support us when we call to inform them their child is not passing a class or got in trouble that day, and they talk about us with their friends and neighbors in a good way. Kids see this relationship and usually respond accordingly, knowing that their teacher(s) and parents are talking to each other and they will not get away with playing us against each other. MOST parents fall into this category.

2. The Absentee. We try to get these parents in for conferences, and they confirm but then do not show. We call and leave messages or send email but get no reply. I personally have called parents, only to have them hang up as soon as I introduce myself as their child’s teacher. I call back and the phone rings and goes into voice mail. They do not want to talk with me. It is clear that to help the child of these parents, it is up to me—alone.

3. The Teacher Bashers. Although not by any means the majority of parents, these take the biggest toll on the respect that children must have for their teachers in order for us to help them. These parents talk badly about us to their friends in church and at the ball park, and they do it in front of their kids. They proclaim that they’re going to move their children to other schools where the teachers are nicer and not so bent on enforcing rules of conduct. Despite their anger and accusations, teachers are expected to slog on. But we’re human, too, and the relationship between the No. 1 and No. 2 influences needed to help the child be successful breaks down.

4. The Blamers. The children of blaming parents have no responsibility for their academic success. In the minds of these parents, their children are perfect. If they fail a test, a class, or misbehave, it is something the teacher did (or did not) do.

A student of mine failed a test and when I emailed the parents to let them know and to offer a re-take opportunity, their response was, “What did you do to prepare him for the test?” It didn’t matter that we’d been talking about the subject in class for two weeks, reviewed every day, and posted a study guide online with the answers. Another time, I called a parent to let them know their child had started a fight that had caused injury to another child. “Where were you?” asked the parent. “My child would never hit anyone.” This, despite the fact that I had already said that I’d witnessed the entire incident and stopped the fight, but had not been able to intervene because I was 30 feet away until after the injury had occurred.

5. The Helicopters. These parents seem to need to protect their child from “everything.” I believe they are well-intentioned, but their behavior is actually at the expense of the social and emotional growth of their children. These parents drive their children to and from school every day because they do not want them to ride on the school bus with “those other children.” Their kids aren’t allowed to play outside after school because their parents are afraid they might get hurt or kidnapped. They don’t want their child to get bad grades, even if they don’t understand the material, because “it might hurt their self-esteem.”

I teach biology and evolution is a unit. I read about an evolutionary biologist that theorizes that since parents are having fewer children nowadays, they are more protective of the one or two they have. In their defense, the impact and fear of societal ills like child pornography, child sex trafficking, kidnapping, sexual abuse, school shootings, drive-by shootings, and bullying, among others, must be also be overwhelming. Though statistically speaking, there may be only a minute chance that any of these will ever happen to a particular child, the constant barrage by the news media and social media is such that our nerves seem to remain on edge.

6. The Over-achievers. These parents are a mixture of supportive with the additional component of competition: Their child must be better than everyone else’s. These parents enroll their children early in piano or violin lessons. They talk about their children getting into the best colleges before they’ve even reached middle school. They enroll their children in whatever programs or activities they believe to be necessary to get them there.

I sometimes talk with my students about their week outside of school and get exhausted just listening. They are running, practicing, performing, preparing, and/or doing something every day and evening. Everything is organized, structured, and scheduled. They have very little free time to just relax, involve themselves in free play, or do homework.

I understand, being a parent of three daughters myself, that parents have for all time wanted their children to grow up and have a life better than theirs. But the costs of defining what “better” means instead of allowing their children to find their own paths will be enormous.

Having said all of that, there’s no doubt that the role of parents in public education is critical. No teacher disagrees with the fact that parents must be involved with their child’s education or that meaningful dialogue about improving public education must include the parents of the children it serves. In defense of parents today, they are challenged in ways that parents have never been challenged before.

I remind myself daily that Maslow’s theory doesn’t apply just to children, and the influence of: 1) economic disparity, 2) ethnic and racial discrimination, 3) geographic distance from extended family members, and 4) family dysfunction—ranging from an inability to provide for the basic needs of their children to concerns about their own personal safety— takes its toll on parents as well as children.

Sole providers. Regardless of how they became single parents, one person instead of two is faced with performing all the tasks of parenting—working, doing laundry, running kids to practice, making supper, reading bedtime stories…they are doing the best they can for themselves and their children.

Divorced parents. Friendly or hostile, divorce is hard on children. Many divorces put children in the middle as if they were pawns in a battle. My wife had a student who was out of school because she was called to testify against her father in a custody hearing. I have taught students who left work at one parent’s home and—because of their estranged parents’ relationship—had no way to retrieve it before it was the first parent’s “turn” again.

We know, too, that the economic circumstances of divorced parents with children—most often their mothers—can be considerably more dire than those of the non-custodial parents. How can we expect parents to be active participants in their child’s education when their own lives are being turned upside down?

Parents in circumstances of economic hardship. Lost jobs and the Great Recession have pushed even intact families into bankruptcy, requiring them to lose their homes or sell them in attempts to downsize. Many have been forced to take lower-paying jobs to put food on the table. Unexpected deaths of spouses and high medical bills put extra strain on finances, not to mention the capacities of the surviving parents. The stress of not having enough money for the family and the normal grieving of the loss of a significant other takes precedence over whether the homework is done.

“Sandwiched” care-givers. People today are waiting longer before getting married, which delays the beginning of families. Although often positive in terms of career development and economic stability, this same trend pushes parents of school-aged children on the other end, as more and more are faced with caring for aging parents as well.

We must grapple and solve the negative impacts of social and cultural issues on all of the direct shareholders in public education—students, teachers and parents alike—before we can even begin to address the challenges we face in passing on to children the academic knowledge and skills they will need to thrive in the world they will inherit. TEACHERS CAN ONLY DO SO MUCH.  There must be a dialogue to get public education back on track.

By Tim Mullen, PhD

Teacher and author of “STOP BLAMING + START TALKING: Developing a Dialogue for Getting Public Education Back on Track” (www.teachertimmullen.com)