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Hovering parents bully teachers

The Baltimore Sun

Carroll County school officials told a grandmother to stop coming to her grandchild's class after she spent two weeks studying the teacher. A Baltimore County teacher recalls being threatened physically by a parent who happened to be a boxer.

And in Howard County, overbearing parents are becoming such a concern that more than half the teachers surveyed say they have experienced "harassing behavior."

For the past two years, 60 percent of the teachers responding to a job satisfaction survey conducted by the Howard County Education Association reported that they have been subjected to harassment. Last year's survey specifically identified parents as the offenders in 60 percent of the cases. This year's survey, to be released in the coming weeks, will report similar results, said Ann DeLacy, the HCEA president.

"The workload is bad, but coupled with over-demanding parents, the job is horrible," said DeLacy, whose organization represents most of the workers in the school system.

Of particular concern are parents - dubbed "helicopter parents" for their tendency to hover over their children - e-mailing teachers, school officials say, with messages often excessive or abusive or both. The prevalence of incidents contributed to the Howard school system's decision to implement a civility policy last year and prompted the PTA to send a warning to parents about e-mail at the beginning of this school year.

"People were getting daily e-mails from the same parents," said Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County schools. "It got to the point that the employees felt that they were being harassed."

Growing demands

Dealing with difficult parents is neither a new issue for educators nor unique to Howard County, as teachers from other jurisdictions across the Baltimore region recite similar experiences.

But many educators say they are seeing a rise in such behavior, due in part to the growing use of technology such as e-mail and online progress reports. And DeLacy and others in the profession say that the demands placed on teachers have hurt retention, particularly among special education instructors.

"Teachers are leaving teaching because of parents," DeLacy said. "The turnover is incredible. I have teachers who refuse to teach special education."

Affluent areas such as Howard County are fertile ground for demanding parents, said Helen E. Johnson, an author and consultant to colleges on parental involvement. Parents typically have time and resources, and are motivated by social status to have their children reflect positively on them, she said.

"You have a generation of parents who have devoted themselves - in nonproductive ways - to create the perfect child," Johnson said. "It is the trophy child syndrome."

Johnson, founder and former director of the Parents' Program at Cornell University, has studied so-called helicopter parenting. Her research showed that this type of behavior started to appear on college campuses in the late 1980s, when the children of the baby-boomer generation arrived.

"There was an emphasis on the importance of babies; local and state governments were focusing on child health," Johnson said. "Late boomers were beginning to see the importance of nurturing and educating babies."

'A huge problem'

By the 1990s, helicopter parenting was in full swing. College admissions offices began to complain that parents insisted on sitting in on their child's admission interview. Some admissions officials began to suspect that parents of prospective students wrote their essays, said Johnson, co-author of Don't Tell Me What To Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years.

"It has escalated," Johnson said. "It's a huge, huge problem for colleges and universities. It doesn't start at the college level - it starts in utero for some of these parents."

Cynthia North, a special education teacher at Parkville Middle School, said she knows well what it's like to deal with difficult parents. In addition to being threatened by the boxer parent, North encountered a disgruntled mother who took a complaint about her son's math project all the way to a congressman.

"They have a tendency to think that their child is the only child in your classroom," said North, whose 34 years of teaching includes stints in Alabama and Tennessee.

'A prime target'

In Carroll County, parents of children with special needs are among the worst offenders, said Barry Potts, president of the Carroll County Education Association, which represents more than 2,200 teachers, guidance counselors and registered nurses.

"A teacher is a pretty prime target when the child is not meeting their potential," Potts said.

Potts recounted the incident of the grandmother who was told to stop visiting her grandchild's elementary school.

"We don't tolerate that," Potts said. "It is disruptive to the teacher and the student."

The wide use of e-mail and other advances in technology equip parents to better monitor their child's academic performance. But excessive e-mails got so bad in Howard County that the PTA group that governs the parent-teacher associations in the school system sent a refresher on e-mail etiquette to all chapters.

"We wanted to give parents the heads-up in the beginning of the year to have common courtesy for everyone," said council President Mary Jane Barbato-Grauso. "I said, 'Don't badger them.'"

Another complaint from Howard teachers is that many parents insist that they respond quickly, including during class time and planning periods, DeLacy said.

"Sometimes I think there is a sense of entitlement that parents feel as part of the demands they make on teachers and staff," she said.

Barbato-Grauso urged parents to set up appointments with teachers to discuss concerns and to allow a day or two before expecting a response from a teacher.

"Teachers are pretty maxed out with time at school instructing students," Barbato-Grauso said. "They do not have the time to respond 24/7."

Matters of tone

The miscommunications that can occur when electronic interaction replaces face-to-face discussion often result in teachers feeling attacked and insulted.

"People feel freer to say it in an e-mail than they would face to face," Caplan said. "It's fast and easy. Sometimes people send things out before they have time to think. It can be misinterpreted - the tone that is meant."

Even attempts by teachers to keep parents apprised of their child's progress can lead to problems, educators say. A computer program that enables Howard teachers to frequently update grades online has sparked complaints from parents, DeLacy said.

"They say, 'Why does my child have this grade, and why has the grade not been posted?'" she said.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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