Helicopter Moms, Snow Plow Parents, and a New Vernacular to Ponder…

March 27, 2021

The term Helicopter Mom has become cliche. This once, behind-the-doors descriptive, whispered amongst teachers in the hallways and in that mysterious Teachers Room, has found its way into the mainstream vernacular.

For the past several years, one of my favorite slides to present at Back-to-School Night contains absolutely no words. I simply click and watch, as my “Welcome to 4T” presentation advances to the next slide, and the enlarged graphic of a helicopter slowly appears on screen. Then I pause for effect, turning back to my audience before admitting without shame, “My name is Mary, and I’m a reformed Helicopter Mom.”

The parents who laugh out loud at this point are the ones who’ve been able to own their own, hovering tendencies. Thankfully, these faces make up the vast majority of the crowd. The ones who chuckle uncomfortably when this image appears, however, are the ones who are still coming to terms with it.

By the beginning of each school year, I have a pretty good idea of which parents helicopter and which ones snow plow, a more recent and lesser-known parental descriptive, more well-known in areas that experience harsh, cold, winter weather with high levels of snow accumulation. Snow plow parents take the aerodynamics out of the equation and bring it back to earth. Envision a large, metal plow, churning through the neighborhood, spreading salt and scraping its heavy blade across the asphalt. It’s goal is to remove any snow-related obstacle standing in the way.

Snow Plow parents jump behind the wheel to aptly remove any academic, social, or emotional obstacle their child may be facing. Forget about the liturgy of the playground and real-life problem-solving. At the first sign of struggle, these parents put the plow in gear and get to work.

Many children of Snow Plow parents are not given the opportunity to develop self-esteem through the acquisition of academic independence, to open themselves up to trial and error, or to build an inherent confidence gained only through hard work and dedication, or after solving an age-appropriate, peer-related dilemma. Snow plow parents do not allow their children to fail. Failure, one of life’s greatest teachers, is considered unacceptable in their homes. Mom or Dad is there to quickly remove any accumulation of real life that may be blocking the path, be it a bully on the playground or a little trouble remembering that math algorithm for long division. And the streets they are clearing remove valuable life-lessons and opportunities for growth.

Parents often wonder if teachers talk about them at school. The answer is, “Of course we do!” Don’t you talk about us? Who’s too tough. Who’s not tough enough. Who gives too much homework. Who gives too little. Who’s a nut-job. Who truly inspires your child. You bet we talk about you!

Knowing a family has a reputation for being supportive of their child’s education, receptive to professional feedback, and has a seemingly-solid grasp of what life is really like (inside and outside of the classroom), helps a lot. It opens the door for an honest, open, home-school connection.

But there is always that handful of parents, the ones who drive us nuts, the ones who have no idea that a world exists outside their cocoon of unrealistic expectations. The stories I’ve heard from educators across the country give us the chance to combine mutual experiences into a few, generalized categories of outlandish behaviors at home.

Let’s extend our thinking beyond the helicopter or the plow…and poke a little fun at some of the real-life caricatures that come into our classrooms every few years:

  • WARNING: If you read any of these and are offended, perhaps you need to take a closer look at how you help (or hinder) your child’s life at school. Teachers aren’t superhuman. We’re just regular people, doing the best we can, dedicated to our craft…and to our kids.

The Armchair Academic ~ This is the parent who has no degree in education, yet on screen or off, they just know better than you do how to be a teacher. This parent sends frequent emails, short notes to suggest a better way to do your job. They critique your performance to anyone on the playground who will listen, before or after school, or worse, to their child. Do they question their accountant about what tax code is being used? Do they offer an alternative prognosis to their physician after the test results are in? Do they look up from the dental chair and suggest a different tool be used for their bi-annual teeth cleaning?…or do they assume the trained professionals know what they’re doing? The teachers I know and respect are quite adept at their craft.

The Virtual Voyeur ~ This is a new breed of Covid parenting. You know they’re there. Every few moments, their child’s eyes flicker to a spot just slightly above the computer screen. They give an almost imperceptible nod to whomever is lurking out of sight. It’s the Virtual Voyeur. Given the opportunity, would this perpetually peeping prompter be sitting at the desk next to their child in a physical classroom?…taking notes, whispering directives?

The Homework Hypocrite ~ This parent continuously apologizes for being uninvolved in their child’s life. By the upper elementary grades, parents needn’t hover over their child as homework is being completed. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, working at home without supervision is considered a healthy stage of academic, social, and emotional development. Ironically, The Homework Hypocrite’s child is often the learner who needs a little more back-up at home, the student who struggles with organization, often losing assignments or forgetting to complete them. These children need help to develop a system that works for them at home. Apologies from the Homework Hypocrite don’t help…but they certainly do teach their little ones the art of making excuses!

The Digital Demander ~ These academic aggravators are either incredibly tech-savvy, or they haven’t a clue about what it actually takes to manage a digital-hybrid-in-person-sometimes-cohort-quarantine classroom. Nor do they express any observable consideration for the hours that have already been spent watching tutorials in an effort to become more fluent with the ever-changing-world-is-in-crisis-so-jump-in methods of teaching currently being implemented in classrooms across the world.

The Email Eficianado ~ Related to the Armchair Academic and the Digital Demander, this parent is relentless. They must email you every time their child farts…or doesn’t like an assignment…or needs work to take with them on a last-minute family vacation (even though there are only 15 minutes left in the school day and you are in the middle of teaching a whole-class lesson). Upon return, the Email Eficianado often reaches out to ask when you will be able to find time to help their child catch up on what was missed.

The Doctor Appointapologist ~ It’s a pain in the neck to schedule doctor appointments these days, but the Appointapologist has been around for decades. As a mother of two, there have been innumerable trips to the pediatrician, the dentist, and the oral surgeon, as well as various and sundry other specialist appointments. In addition, there have been a slew of medical professionals to meet with as my rapidly aging mother became less and less able to live independently. I can only think of a handful of times that I was actually forced to schedule an appointment during school hours. Appointapologist don’t show their children that school matters, that other people’s time and efforts matter. They pull them out of class when they really don’t need to…because it’s easier for them.

The Could-You-Just-ifier ~ “Could you just…?”

NO! Plate is full.

I can see pieces of myself in each of these descriptives. Maybe the circumstances are different, but the behaviors and grasp for control are familiar. And when I recognize my own version of crazy in someone else’s, I know I am heading in the right direction.

My name is Mary, and I’m a recovering judgmental cow.

The Voice in My Head…and the Mask on the Screen

January 24, 2021

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For the past three months or so, I’ve been writing this article to launch Behind the Doors of the Teacher’s Room, a personal goal I’ve had for quite a few years. I have been doing all of this writing in my head, mind you, stepping in time to that familiar dance of avoiding anything in the vicinity of my personal laptop. To date, nothing has been committed to paper.

The noise between my ears these last ten months has been deafening at times; COVID teaching, COVID mothering, COVID politics, COVID fatigue; a cacophony of COVID echoing around, bouncing off my cerebral walls, creating a good deal of uninvited chaos.

And amidst all this uncertainty, the angel on my right shoulder and the devil on my left haven’t stopped arguing long enough for me to make any real sense of it all, much less write about it. Each voice makes a strong argument, perched righteously on either side of the swirling chatter, sitting in judgement over the state of education, the state of my classroom, the state of the Union and the state of my own mind.

Something’s gotta’ give.

The angel and the devil on my shoulders need to stop interrupting each other. Their bickering is interfering with my ability to stay focused on what is truly important. Yet here I am, sitting in the middle of their incessant clamor to be right…to control the situation…to point fingers.

Perhaps giving each voice an opportunity to speak without interruption will help, to look at the halo and the horns and explore each of these opposing forces, in an effort to organize the mess with some sense of diplomacy. And since I am the only Speaker of this House, I get to preside over both formal and informal sessions of this internal cranial congress. Whether the angel or the devil has been granted the floor is entirely up to me.

I am well aware that the voice of reason and kindness is the one in white, the one with the halo, the one I use to define myself as a good person. And the one with the horns? Well, she’s in there too…and her voice needs to be heard. Somewhere in between is the real me. Congress is bicameral, right?

And the voice I use in our virtual classroom isn’t always the voice that is currently speaking in my head. I may be mask-less and teaching from home, but the mask I choose to put on during the course of any given day stops a very different kind of virus from spreading.

The voice in my head and the voice I use after the unmute button has been clicked are not always in sync. Curbing my language on the screen is a no-brainer. Controlling the thoughts in my head is beyond my human ability. But what comes out of my mouth is up to me. Thankfully, more often than not, it’s the angel of restraint who is granted the floor.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Scenario #1: It’s about three weeks into the virtual school year. By this time, we are set-up up for learning. Our notebooks, focusing on various subjects across the curriculum, are ready to go. Several classroom routines have been established, and a few class jokes have found their way into our vernacular, both on and off the screen.

“Okay, gang. Let’s take out our Science Notebooks,” I urge with an overly enthusiastic chirp. “Hold them up, so I can see them!”

This is ridiculous,” the voice in my head begins. “Are they seriously expecting us to teach like this?

In one rectangle on-screen, I see the kids who are physically in the classroom, arms extended high overhead, each set of hands proudly displaying a one-subject, spiral notebook with the words “Science Seekers” written in big, bold marker on each cover. In the other rectangles on screen, most faces at home have been replaced with notebooks in a variety of vivid colors. Some of my chuckleheads are zooming their notebooks in and out, exploring the camera feature on their devices with glee.

They have no idea I’m still trying to figure out how to juggle this impossible situation we’ve all been thrown into. But It’s my job to keep them engaged, to keep them excited about learning (The chirp was a bit much, but I’d rather err on the side of positivity).

It becomes clear that we all haven’t mastered the mute button when I hear a stern, adult voice coming from somewhere off screen. “Hold it up before she yells at you!” it commands.

The Voice in my head: What the…? Who is that? Are you kidding me? Why is someone intentionally striking fear of me into their child? Why are you even in the room, lady? Get out of here and let me do my job!

The Voice on the Screen: “Nobody is in trouble, gang. I just want to make sure everybody has what they need before we jump into Science today,” it assures everyone in the room (on or off the screen).

Question: Is it possible for a modified chirp to drip with sarcasm?

Scenario #2: We are doing a spot check, making sure everybody is able to find (and open) an assignment in our virtual classroom. Most of the kids are navigating the clicking quite well, but a few are having some trouble.

“If you were able to get into the assignment, go ahead and begin while I help some of our friends click around to see what’s glitching out on them.”

As my more tech savvy learners begin, I notice something strange at the bottom of one of the screens at home. It takes a moment before I realize what it is.

The Voice in my head: Oh my God. That’s somebody’s forehead! Are you kidding me? Who is crawling around on the floor under their child trying to do the clicking? Why are you in the room? That poor kid. Holy shit. You’ve gotta’ be kidding me. Your kid is already in the assignment and doing just fineGrrrr.

The Voice on the Screen: “You’ve got it, _______. Go ahead and keep going while I check to make sure everyone else is all-set too.”

Scenario #3: We are now over three months into the school year. We have become a thriving community of learners…glitches and all. Virtual learning has now offered me a much deeper sense of what my students are living with at home. COVID-19 has given us all a front row seat into each other’s lives, reaching far beyond the boundaries of our physical classroom.

It’s late. It’s been a long day. I click open an email from a parent and read the request. “Can you tell me how to check the assignments again? I stumble upon them from time to time, but I can never remember how to get in there to check on how things are going.”

The Voice in my head: How hard can it be, lady? It’s two clicks. I worked so hard to develop a Virtual Back-to-School Night presentation that you clearly ignored. I’ve sent five updates home, each containing important information and links to all of the resources you need to stay aware of what’s going on at school. If I can juggle single motherhood and still keep all of these kids engaged and enthusiastic about learning, why can’t you get your shit together?

The angel in my head is suddenly requesting time on the floor.

“Shhhh, Mary,” she soothes. “Calm down. Maybe she has a lot of stuff going on in her life too. Maybe she’s just overwhelmed right now. You know exactly what overwhelmed feels like,” her soft, feathery voice reminds me. “Are you forgetting all of the incredible support and generosity you’ve been given this year from the other parents? Remember, you only see glimpses of her world. You don’t know the whole backstory…and she doesn’t know yours.”

Damn, I hate when that angel is right.

I ask my students to step into the character’s shoes when they read. I tell them stories about my life, my children, my family, my friends. And I ask them to look for their own text-to-life connections, to try to empathize while they read, to think about what is happening in the story, in an effort to understand why characters do what they do, think what they think, and see the world the way they see it.

Maybe it’s time to take a lesson from my own plan book. Maybe I just need to embrace the halo and the horns and wait for the plot to unfold.