Parents who drive teachers crazy

Parent involvement is good — up to a point, writes Steven Rothman, a teacher in the Washington Post. In his middle-class suburb, a minority of pushy parents are harassing the teachers of their perfect children.

This year, I taught a student whose mother wanted to meet with all seven of her child’s teachers on what seemed like a weekly basis. Each week, she accused us of not reaching out to her son, saying things like, “You don’t like my child.” She made unreasonable demands. “My child refuses to do work in class. Just make him do the work.” She told us that her son would not do his homework at home and that we should stay after school to see that he did it. It seems as if we have created an “excuse bank” for children, so that teachers are to blame if they fail and not the students themselves.

Via Eduwonk.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    It’s pretty simple. The parent says we have this problem. The teacher suggests a way to solve it.
    Now the teacher owns the problem and if the solution doesn’t work, it’s the teacher’s fault.
    I suggest taking a harder line.
    “I’m sure you and your child can figure out something. Next!”

  2. The article outlines some problems with administrators. No parent should be allowed to harass a teacher in that way.

  3. Margo/Mom says:


    I am sure you will be happy to learn that the teachers in my district have fully mastered your methodology. I don’t think you will find a single teacher who has ownership of any problem. You might want to consider some helpful variations that they have used:

    1) State all IEP goals as “the student will…” Make absolutely no reference to any strategies or supports that relate to the student gaining this ability. When the student doesn’t, by the end of the year, you can explain to the pushy parent that it was the student who “chose” not to achieve.

    2) When a parent calls, tell them you are talking to a parent, or have to return to a classroom full of children (who want to learn), if they should ask when would be a good time to talk just say, “I’m going to hang up now.” This communicates to any busybody administrators who may be listenin that you are not just hanging up rudely, and it communicates to the parent that you believe that they are an annoyance beneath your dignity to recognize.

    3) If all else fails, explain, “unfortunately that’s just our policy.” Reinforce it by sharing that you don’t make decisions (and don’t know who does).

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    That’s too bad.
    I got my idea from talking to a teacher who had a kid going on a European vacation and talking about make-up work. The parents wanted him to get a pass.

    “Do it on the airplane?”
    “No, it makes him airsick.”

    “In the evenings before bed.”
    “No, the hotels are in town and are noisy.”

    The teacher, by suggesting solutions, gave the parents the veto over any solution–whether the veto was valid or not–and since she had put herself in the position of being the one to come up with the solutions, and she had come up with none the parents would not veto…presto. The kid is supposed to get a pass.

    If the teacher had said, instead, “You’ll find the time.” with a big smile, the parents would not have had the veto power.

  5. Margo, just as Rothman indicates in his article, the vast majority of parents are just fine. I will assume that this is also the case in your district with teachers. However, when you look at the #s differential — individual teachers have to deal with many more parents than parents have to deal with teachers — this is what his point stresses: that even a “few” parents in the overall scheme of things can be sufficient to drive teachers batty.

    This year I received the most inane, insulting and emotionally debilitating note from a parent in my almost 20 years of teaching. All because I dared to raise my voice to her “little angel” who refused to stop yapping while I was in the middle of explaining a lesson. My query to the child (“Perhaps I will have to send another e-mail home?”) were transmuted by mom into “personal attacks” on the child, and mom went on to list a whole bevy of fictitious “I heard from other parents that …” anecdotes that I have had a “long” habit of “embarrassing” children in my class.

    That’s the thing. Microscopically detailed explanations now have to be given for any form of disciplinary action taken against a student. “He refused to stop talking in class,” for example, will yield parental queries/comments such as “How many times did you tell him to stop?” “I think you were too hard on him.” “Well, others were talking too, he said.” “He says he wasn’t talking loud and that you couldn’t have heard him.” Etc.

  6. Margo/Mom says:


    I don’t know that I would categorize the “vast majority of teachers” in my district in any particular way. I would characterize the culture of the district as being hostile to parent involvement overall. You make the point with regard to the “numbers differential,” that teachers have to work with more parents than parents have to work with teachers. Um, yeah. The clerk at McDonalds has to work with more customers than customers have to work with clerks. Does that somehow translate into an excuse for being rude or dismissive?

    I would also point to a responsibility differential. I don’t know of any teachers who are still around and involved in their students’ lives when they are grown and cannot support themselves.

    I would put it to you–if a note from a parent can be “emotionally debillitating,” perhaps a loud challenge to a student in front of friends might be embarrassing?

  7. Margo, as a parent and a teacher I can understand your frustration. However, you’re refusing to address to problem in the story–that some parents’ demands are excessive.

    Teachers who refuse to answer parents’ questions are out of line. Teachers who attempt to deal with every out of line request are crazy or masochistic.

  8. Margo/Mom says:


    The problem with the story is that it is presenting a one-sided point of view. It is hard to address a problem that may look very different from the parent side of the equation. For instance, does the teacher have a problem enjoying the particular student that they are accused of not liking? I would submit that there are teachers for whom not liking is a significant barrier to being able to engage a student in learning.

    I can envision a highly believable scenario in which a teacher sends home loads of unfinished worksheets for completion at home. These were supposed to be finished in class. The fact that they were not the teacher ascribes to willful obstinance, or poor parenting, or both. The parent is then tasked with seeing that they are completed–in addition to whatever the homework was supposed to be. And maybe the whole thing is sent home in a packet at the end of the first six weeks grading period, after weeks of not working in class. The parent feels dumped on. The parent tells the teacher that they are supposed to see that classwork gets done in class. Seems like a reasonable division of duties.

    Maybe the parent has some additional doubts about the value of said worksheets, or can’t for the life of them figure out what the student is supposed to do on them. Maybe the teacher should–if absolutely committed to them–have the experience of making the student do them after school.

    It isn’t likely that teaching will ever return to a carte blanche affair (if it ever was) in which teachers’ judgements are never questioned. It also is not likely that parents are driving the “best and the brightest” away from the profession. Increased access to professions for women has already achieved this to a far greater degree. Let’s face it. Parents (particularly mothers) today are more highly educated and knowledgeable than Mrs. Cleaver was. Trying to find new strategies to make them shut-up and go away is not only unprofessional, but not likely to improve the quality of education.

    Teachers who figure out how to have meaningful conversations with parents about what is going on in the classroom are the ones who are most likely to be able to build a working team that includes parents.

  9. Parents should know their child’s progress in class and what measures can be taken to improve the child’s performance. Teachers should provide this information as best they can (there are contractual obligations to this end).

    Parents are not entitled to daily progress reports or teacher-initiated contacts “whenever the child appears to be having difficulty.” Nor can they expect teachers to personally diagnose and remediate each of the 160+ children they teach.

    And yes, solutions must be phrased in terms of what the child must do, not what the teacher will do. The teacher is already doing.

    And advice for teachers: don’t be put on the defensive. Don’t allow yourself to be harassed; don’t be a victim.

  10. I would put it to you–if a note from a parent can be “emotionally debillitating,” perhaps a loud challenge to a student in front of friends might be embarrassing?

    Oh yes, that’s it, Margo. You really ought to see the accusations, innuendo and outright lies that were in this note. In effect, it was essentially a request for a dismissal, and if not, some sort of punitive penalty. For raising my voice in my class. Imagine that.

    I can imagine what you’re reaction would be if I didn’t say a word and just pointed to the door — indicating that the student should go to the Time Out Room (where, if sent out of class, they get an automatic detention).

    When a kid refuses — after REPEATED (low key, mind you) requests — to keep his/her mouth closed so that I have to say “BE QUIET PLEASE. Will I have to send another e-mail home?” … if that’s “embarrassment in front of his/her friends,” and you have a problem with such, then guess what: YOU have a problem.

    Which clearly explains (to me, at least) where you’re coming from.

  11. The clerk at McDonalds has to work with more customers than customers have to work with clerks. Does that somehow translate into an excuse for being rude or dismissive?

    The point flew right over your head.

    The point is that teachers (I have 180 total students this year) have magnitudes more parents to deal with than parents do teachers in any given year. In my case the ratio would be approx. 300 to 7. Given such figures, who has a much better chance of dealing with “irate customers” — the teacher or parent? And given such, year after year, which stands to get more burnt out BY it?

  12. Margo,

    The article was pointing out, anecdotally sure, that parents like those named in the article ARE driving people out of teaching, and my experience has been that many who leave aren’t particularly the folks that most parents were dissatisfied with. It’s often those who finally gave up the career because no matter what more they did, it wasn’t enough. It was happier to think in terms of changing careers.

    Based on this thread and others, it sounds like your district is pretty terrible in terms of how teachers act. I don’t know if the average district is more like mine or more like yours, but I can assure you that in some schools most teachers (I’d say almost all) really do behave reasonably and seek to work cooperatively with parents.

    Did you ever say where you were geographically for most of these horror stories? It just seems like at some level, maybe just the elected folks, someone who worked for the district would agree with you that what you experienced was unacceptable and would seek to change the teachers behavior. I can’t imagine that simply being unavailable to speak with parents on the phone would fly where I work, for instance. (I honestly have had to end conversations because I had a class start, but I was always available to talk at a different time or meet in person.) What you describe is just so strange to me.

  13. There is no excuse for professional educators acting rudely towards parents (including the obnoxious ones) in the ways Margo describes. My response is similar to NDC’s, I think there must be some significant differences either in geography or political climate among school districts. In the high schools I’ve worked, I’ve always had the opposite problem, though, not enough contact from parents: good or bad. I’ve gone out of my way to try to reach parents: made home visits on weekends, written letters, visited churches and community events (I’m in a smaller town). But I’m amazed at the number of parents who deliberately give wrong numbers, refuse to answer phone or letters. I’m usually not contacting parents about students’ behavior, almost always about their class work and trying to help them before its too late. I finally developed a system where I had students invite a significant adult of their choosing to be a mentor to them for the school year. Parents could be that person, or at least had to sign off that the student’s choice was okay. I would not discuss private issues with the mentor, but it helped to have another concerned adult–whom the student respected–there to provide a third leg to the stool.

  14. Margo/Mom says:

    To all who have responded to my rants–I appreciate those who have tried to understand and not cast aspersions on my sanity. I can assure you that in most aspects of my life I am regarded as quite normal, and a valued contributor.

    Geographically (maintaining some sense of anonymity as I still have children to get through school) we live within the largest school district in the state. We are surrounded by a number of much smaller suburbans in which the teacher (and to be absolutely fair–other staff) behavior that I experience would simply not happen to the degree that it does here. People have lawyers and connections and things.

    But the three instances that I cited were all from the most recent fortnight. Some of the standard operating procedure derives from entrenched beliefs that parents are supposed to already know when their kids are in trouble (if they really care)–as Dean suggests (and Dean is right–there is precious little that a parent is “entitled” to, except some specifics, largely ignored, spelled out in NCLB and IDEA)–as well as any other knowing who to contact, when to do what and other procedures, and that those who don’t either don’t care or are too drug addicted, too illiterate or too overwhelmed to function.

    Mega kudos to Renee–especially if you are in an urban district–for doing the right things. I have never personally given out a wrong phone number or refused to answer. But I can tell you that the temptation has sometimes been very strong when I see the school’s number come up on my caller ID at work–and know that they are calling to tell me that something that I tried to prevent them from doing (like postponing any transition/orientation support for my son with LD until 3 days after the start of school) has just blown up in their face–and they want me to drop everything and come to perform a rescue. I have also had teachers call me at work numbers from three jobs back–despite providing new informatation on at least three different forms at the beginning of each school year. I have also worked in low-income neighborhoods for a long time and realize that people without phones have to give friends/neighbor’s phones and even the easy availability of cell phones doesn’t guarantee that someone will have “minutes” when you call them.

    I should report that many of the teachers I have encountered are “nice” people. Many are very civil within the confines of the allotted 15 minute conference on their turf. But individual civility does not add up to a culture that recognizes a valid role for parents–outside of being told what to do.

  15. I’m sorry that’s been your experience Margo. I can’t say that all the teachers or that the overall school cultural is perfect where I am, but I’d describe as generally an authentically cooperative culture. In the instances when things go bad, parents are just as likely or maybe more likely to be the “problem” as teachers and staff are, but it could be based on what they have experienced before the present situation.

    Obviously what you have experienced is bad and that a better system is possible. What do you envision as the valid role that schools should recognize and what would be a reasonable level of interaction between parents and teachers? Do you think the number of students assigned to a particular teacher would have to be reduced to achieve it realistically or is your impression that the teachers have the time and resources to make it work, but they choose not to or have learned that it’s easier not to?

  16. Margo/Mom says:


    Time can be a tricky thing. Sometimes one needs to frontload a situation in order to make it go smoothly further down the road. A system of positive parent phone calls made periodically takes time–however the relationships that they build can frequently help to prevent future problems. I had a recent exchange with some teachers (on another blog) who hated Open House night–because they spent the time running away from parents who wanted “conferences on the fly.” As a parent I have personally attended a number of Open Houses where there was no particular point (it always seems like a test, to see how many parents you can turn out on a school night to see if they can run through the builidng and spend two minutes in each of their child’s classrooms). Now there is some time that could be better spent. Perhaps miniconferences are a better use of the time. Perhaps there are some expectations to share. Maybe it’s time to explain the new curriculum or show what the math worksheets are really driving at. Maybe an evening help night by invitation only to parents of kids whose problems are just showing up.

    I have certainly encountered teachers within and without my district who earnestly believe that a grade every six weeks and two fifteen minute conferences a year are sufficient contact with parents. But, I would say that there are far more who just believe that there’s nothing they can about students who are having problems, so why bother. Certainly some things more urgently require a parent report. A student who leaves the school (particularly those under the age of 16) should be reported to a parent–immediately. Not turning in homework or completing classwork–maybe waiting a week isn’t so bad–but every day a problem continues unresolved makes it harder to solve. Again–the power of frontloading is important. If 80% of the class is not handing in homework–it’s either time to stop assigning it (because it is having no effect), or figure out what the problem is. To ignore the problem because–well, these kids have parents who don’t care, or they are too busy or too stupid–and continue to make assignments–is really just advertising to the class that the assignment doesn’t mean anything.

    Positive Behavior Intervention and Support talks about an 80/20/5% divide. The overall, regular curriculum and rules should meet the needs of 80% of the students. Roughly 20% are at risk of trouble of some kind (warranting some intensification or group assistance) and 5% need intensive supports. If your percentages are off, look at what you are doing and make adjustments (as opposed for wishing the kids were better). This relates to your time question because I hear so many teachers who want to continue in a mode that doesn’t work and complain that they have too many needy students to meet all their needs. So–perhaps an intensification (smaller class size, longer school day) across the board is warranted in a particular school that is not able to meet that 80% of need in any other way.

    But regarding the valid role–there are some suggestions in the few bits of legal requirements that touch on parent involvement. One is IDEA–which structures IEP team around the concept of the parent as a partner on the team. Most schools regard the IEP as “meaningless paperwork,” and there are always active lobbying efforts to diminish this minimally recognized role for parents. The other is the Title I regs (NCLB). NCLB defines two roles for parents. One is the parent as consumer–allowing choice of schools and supporting purchase of tutoring services. Again–little attention is paid, and the teaching profession is organized against it. The second role defined by NCLB is as a partner in developing and evaluating school improvement plans. This one (except perhaps in Chicago where there are actual advisory councils) is really overlooked. I used to think that schools just didn’t want parents in the room–but as I delved deeper, there is just a total lack of commitment to the whole improvement planning process.

    So–I would say that any district that picked up on these provisions would be lighting the way to the revolution. But committing to a regular schedule of positive phone calls (and maybe training the non-teaching staff who answer phones on common courtesy and customer service skills) is much more likely–and would make a tremendous difference.

  17. Margo, what you are looking for sounds pretty reasonable especially at the elementary level where teachers only have fewer than 30 kids typically. Even brief phone conversations can become a little unmanageable if the goal is to have them with 100+ parents, but if you only need to talk to the 20% or 5%, it might be fine depending on the frequency of communication needed. (Here’s the thing though: if a teacher needs to talk to 20+ parents frequently, it is hard to figure out how he or she will actually have time for the calls and have time to teach classes, plan and grade. One of the things that happens in my district is that our special education teachers do a lot of parent communication and the regular academic teachers do the planning and grading. As long as the regular ed teacher and the special ed. teacher communicate well, it can work nicely; the downside is the potential for a good cop/bad cop situation developing.)

    I think I’m among the group of teachers who thinks a grade every six weeks and maybe even no conferences is enough for the kids who are doing well, but more frequent communication might be needed when the kids aren’t doing so well if the communication is productive. What’s frustrating as a teacher are long conversations that don’t change any behaviors. I’m sure that it frustrates parents too.

    Your open house comments are interesting. We seem to have ours because it’s expected by the community, but it’s not expected to be a conference night. It’s maybe 10 minutes a class to go over policies and expectations and do some general questions and answers. But especially since it designed to be for a whole class period of parents at a time, it’s not a good time for parents to expect to conference with the teacher about particular issues about individual kids. I think it’s clear to the parents what the night is about, so I would expect anyone who thought it was a waste of time just to stay home. It had never occurred to me that parents might think it was actually a conference night, but we do have trouble with parents rarely who, despite seeing how the structure works, will hold the teacher after the allotted time for a particular period and want an individual discussion. It just seems kind of rude since other people are waiting for their little ten minute session. I wonder if maybe that’s what the teachers on the other site were trying to avoid.

    It might be more effective to do things a different way if the goal is to have conferences, but it doesn’t seem to be. It seems to be a chance for the 80 percent with no problems to have a chance to meet the teacher and get a little insight into what’s going to be taught that year. And parents can set up a conference almost any time they want one with individual teachers or with all their kid’s teachers if the open house doesn’t meet their needs.