If you have been around higher education for any length of time, you have been exposed to that recent phenomenon, the helicopter parent. The helicopter parent, as you might know, is a parent that continues to manage her or his college student’s life, well after a time that the student should be able to manager her own life. Common traits among these parents include calling each day to make sure the student is up and awake for classes, checking on homework or assignment completion, selecting courses for the student to make sure the “appropriate professors” teach the student, and then calling that “appropriate professor” to talk about the student’s grades or course work.
Parents micromanage for a number of valid reasons. (This isn’t a post about parents; the focus is on these behaviors.) First and foremost among these valid reasons is that today’s parents and children have close relationships. What some of us consider “micromanaging” is simply having a close familial bond which dictates that parents will do all they can to help their children succeed. Secondly, parents take on this role because it’s often easier and more convenient than relying on the student to do the work that’s required of him. When parents help so much (out of love or convenience) that their children never fail, are the parents really helping their children succeed? It is the rare child who will stop a parent’s interference to give him an easier life. These hovering parents, we might surmise, are not preparing their student for a life of success. Parents are simply preparing the path the student will travel.
And a smooth path does not equate to success over the span of a lifetime.
How many of us—as college or university faculty—take on similar “hovering parent” traits and strive to make paths smooth for our students instead of teaching them how to navigate a rough path themselves? I might answer that this would be true for most of us. However, we don’t do this out of love for the student (as a parent might); we do this out of convenience and out of the overarching pressures we face to move students through an educational system that they might not be prepared to handle on their own.
How many of us, as a few examples:
- Remind students again and again to turn in their homework or assignments?
- Call a student if he or she has missed a few classes?
- Provide extra credit to raise students’ grades in a course?
- Grade on a curve?
- Change course requirements mid-way through a semester because students complain the work is too hard or that there’s too much of it?
- Place all lecture notes and relevant information on a Course Management System so students don’t have to take notes or even attend class?
While there is nothing wrong with making changes to a course, inquiring about an absent student, or reminding students of an assignment due date, why we are exhibiting these traits is important. Is it to be helpful when original instructions were unclear? Is it to be supportive of student effort? Is it to give students an additional opportunity to succeed or to learn? Is it to keep our own lives manageable? Is it to keep students from complaining?
As faculty, we strive to make course content relevant to students. We work to the best of our abilities to teach students to think or write or act like a biologist, or a chemist, or an engineer, or a teacher, or a fashion designer. We engage students on many different levels through teaching, mentoring, and advising to help them through their university or college careers. Yet we also have other responsibilities and often hundreds of students each semester. Can we do all of these things for all students? No, of course not. Sometimes, we need students to be responsible for themselves. But what happens when they are not responsible for themselves, as they have never learned to be, they have never had to be? They can fail. When they do, our course pass/fail statistics take a dive. Our course evaluations suffer because we weren’t “available” or “understanding” to students’ needs. If students complain that our courses are too challenging, administrators can take a dim view of us (not the students). If too many students (or their parents) complain, our jobs—particularly if we are untenured or part-time faculty—become tenuous.
So what do we do? Do we simplify our courses so much that the students don’t need us to hover? Do we demand less and less from students because they either can’t or won’t rise to the challenge of university or college-level work? Do we hand-hold students well into their junior and senior years (and dare I say it: graduate careers) because they need that support? Or, do we let them fail and, subsequently, learn from that failure experience?
Is it our job as faculty to teach students the value in failure?
This is a complex issue, the melding of parents not allowing their children to fail and where faculty enter into this picture. But it is one that we face daily on college and university campuses. This is an issue that involves state-mandated tests and government intrusion into the educational lives of families. It concerns economics and the “one-who-has-the-most-toys-at-the-end-of-life-wins” mentality. It involves adjunct labor, budget cuts, and dwindling resources. And it has as a rallying cry, “we don’t want anyone to complain.”
How do you handle students in your classes who have never been allowed to fail? How do you work to not be a “helicopter faculty member”? How do you help your adjunct and part-time colleagues withstand the pressures to simplify students’ education? Please leave comments below. However, please be mindful of ProfHacker’s readership when you respond. You may have never had this to deal with the parents or students described here, but many of our readers do have this experience and they are looking for your insights in how to handle these difficult situations.
[Image by Billie Hara.]