Many years ago, I taught my first-ever university course. It resulted in my first contact with what is now widely termed a helicopter parent (yes, we had a few even back then, though nothing like today). I am writing now to reflect publicly on what I think I did right and wrong in dealing with this parent and hope other teachers will respond by sharing their own handling strategies.
I had been given good advice in my teacher prep training, and I put it into practice the very first day of the course by making the following announcement:
I recognize that students sometimes experience crises that make it hard for them to do well in their schoolwork. If you are facing a problem in your life that is impairing your performance in this class, I promise you I will do everything I can to accommodate your needs if you tell me at the time. On the other hand, once the course is over and I have turned in the grades to the administration, I will not makes changes based on you telling me then about some problem you had during the course that you think affected your performance. To put it more simply: If you are responsible, I will be responsive, but not otherwise.
After that first lecture, a young woman asked to talk to me privately, so we met in my office. With her lip trembling, she told me the horrible news that her parents had recently been murdered. She said “Sometimes I burst into tears and can’t stop sobbing, so if I have to run out of class suddenly when you are lecturing, that’s why”. I knew of the details of the murders from the media, but that couldn’t give me or anyone else more than a surface understanding of what she was going through. Of course I told her to do what she needed to do to take care of herself, expressed my sympathy for her loss and offered to arrange mental health counselling for her if she wanted it. I also said she could come to me anytime she needed extra help with the classwork or just wanted to talk.
Remarkably given the enormous loss she has sustained, she was an excellent, composed student. She never needed extra help and achieved a nearly perfect grade (on the merits – tests were blind-coded so I wasn’t being particularly easy on her out of sympathy).
Other than a young man who was in a car accident a month later and missed some classes as a result, no other students came to me with any challenges that I had to accommodate as an instructor. However, after the course was over and the grades had been turned in, I found a note in my mailbox from a student in the course. He wrote that he remembered that I had specifically asked people not to come to me after the course with problems that had affected them during the term. Nonetheless, he wanted me to know that his dad had been very ill during the course. Although “he didn’t want to guilt trip me” (yeah, right), he asked me to raise his grade because he would have done better if not for the family health crisis.
I was irritated at his irresponsibility and also his continuing passivity (i.e., leaving a manipulative note in my mailbox instead of talking to me). I telephoned him at the number in his note and repeated what I had told him and everyone else the first day of the course. I said that I was sorry about his dad, but that I was not going to raise his grade post hoc. End of discussion, I naively thought.
A few days later I answered my home phone on the weekend. Continue reading “What I Did Right and Wrong in My First Experience with a Helicopter Parent”