When Parents Attack: Extreme parents cause stress on teachers

Eliza Llewellyn, Staff Writer

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Graphic by Connie Zhou ’12

Eliza Llewellyn ‘14
Staff Writer

The telltale message light on the phone blares red. As an unsuspecting teacher sets down a stack of homework, she does not know the ambush that awaits. The message is not a question, reminder, or wrong number – it is an affront.

In Westport schools, teachers said, a minority of parents can take involvement to the extreme. One parent pressured a math teacher for a grade change, saying “As a taxpayer in the town of Westport, I am your employer.” Another, fighting for a grade change, complained that a certain teachers’ grades were notoriously skewed. “You are the talk of the dog park.”

In a school where students are expected to be athletes, club presidents, and receive straight As, there is immense pressure to get the right grade. But sometimes parents’ desire for perfection can take its toll on students’ learning experience and teachers’ sanity.

“I make a point not to research kids’ parents,” said a teacher who was granted anonymity due to the personal nature of the subject, “but there are definitely teachers here who feel like the only way to survive is to know who you’re teaching.” If a parent has a reputation as aggressive, “some teachers feel bullied into giving certain grades,” the teacher added.

According to another anonymous teacher, so-called helicopter parents can affect teachers’ decisions in the classroom. “There have been teachers who choose not to do a certain text because they may be misperceived,” she said.

According to the first teacher, many calls consist of grade groveling parents thirsty for an A. In one instance, when a student received an A- on a progress report, a parent called the next day to schedule a meeting with the teacher and demanded that the department head be present. The entire process stemmed from an IPR grade the parent considered to be half a letter grade too low.

A parent intervention usually begins with a call to the teacher. If taken a step further, involvement can consist of a meeting with a department head, with a select few cases being taken up with the administration.

Emotions can run high at these meetings, especially when parents go above a teacher’s head with complaints. “Sometimes parents even skip the first step and directly call an administrator,” the first teacher said. “It’s unsettling to teachers that sometimes we don’t even know there’s a problem.”

Lisbeth Comm, department chair of English, has experience with this issue. According to Comm, little can be done before the parent speaks to the teacher. “If I don’t know the student, there’s nothing I can say to help.”

Complaints are most concentrated in freshmen and honors level classes, teachers said. Freshmen, just out of middle school, may be accustomed to receiving straight As. Honors level students demand a high standard of excellence.

In the opinion of a child psychologist who has children at Staples, parents often share their children’s stress over workload. “Teachers generally do not like parental calls or interference but may be able to hear the problem differently when voiced by a parent,” she said. “There is more of a balance of power in a teacher-to-parent conversation.” However, she recommended that students take initiative in most situations. Helicopter parents who are constantly butting into the classroom infantilize teenagers and hinder their transition to adulthood.

“One mom called and told me to ‘just push the button,’” said one teacher. During one of his first years as a teacher, a parent lobbied for a grade change at the end of fourth quarter, even though her child had not handed in work.

Principal John Dodig emphasized the futility of bullying the school into granting a student an A. “Under no circumstances have I ever, will I ever change a grade,” he said. According to Comm, under Connecticut law, the teacher decides the grade the student receives, unless there is an obvious mistake in grading.

In Westport, many parents have successful careers and strong educational backgrounds. There may be a correlation between high-powered parents and involvement in education that can border on aggression. One teacher worked in a private school before coming to Staples and experienced more extreme behavior there. However, involvement runs on a spectrum. According to the second teacher, who has worked in Fairfield schools, Westport parents are more judgmental and willing to challenge authority than the parents she dealt with in Fairfield.

In an environment where many students have access to outside resources, doing well is seen as a given. One teacher dealt with a parent whose child was tutored. The parent expected that outside instruction would guarantee a good grade and took issue when the student didn’t receive the expected mark.

“Parents value education, ergo they want their children to value education,” Dodig said. “I think their reasons are good. […] I’d rather work in a community where parents are involved.”

Although some cases of parental involvement resemble attacks, most teachers appreciate the intentions behind the noise. “The reason we can pick ourselves up and walk away from the conflict is because [the parent] is trying to stand up for the kid,” said a teacher.

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