Teacher Appreciation Week

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Managing Parents Has Become The Hardest Part Of A Teacher’s Job

I'm a teacher who is now a parent — here's what I wish I understood before.

by Amanda Parrish Morgan

The spring I was pregnant with my first baby, I was sitting in the bleachers chatting with my friend Sara. I’d first known her as my teaching colleague, but we were sitting together a few years and a job change later because her daughter was a runner on the high school track team I coached. That school year was in some ways the hardest of my career. I’d been less prepared as a new teacher and had been through more emotionally intense periods of worry for struggling students, but in terms of the sheer number of responsibilities I was juggling, I had never had so much on my plate. I was teaching five different classes that year and coaching the cross-country and track teams. I’d planned a wedding, gotten married, bought a new house, and now was I pregnant. Most days I woke up at 5 to grade for an hour and a half before heading to work, and I ate instant oatmeal for lunch because I could shovel it in my mouth with one hand while grading with the other. I had loved teaching since my first day six years earlier, but I was beginning to feel something had to change.

I can’t remember if I’d been telling Sara about a particularly tough parent meeting — I had a few of the most contentious of my career that year — or more generally pondering how or if my relationship to work might change when my daughter was born, but I do remember the story she told me in response.

As a new teacher, Sara had her own contentious meeting with a parent because she had been unwilling to accept a late assignment from a student who’d been traveling for an athletic competition. “Someday when you have kids, you’ll see this differently,” that student’s mother had said to Sara. I bristled or made a face in response.

Nearly every teacher I know says that managing parents has become the hardest part of the job.

I knew Sara as a smart, dedicated teacher with high standards, one whose classes students routinely cited as among the most influential in their academic careers. Surely, she had found this comment as patronizing as it seemed to me. But instead, Sara told me she’d come to see that this woman had been right — that she did come see the issue differently once she was a parent.

I did not like this. I did not like how this anonymous mother’s comment played vaguely on the attitude that a young woman is somehow incomplete before motherhood. I didn’t like the ways in which it undermined the understanding I had of myself as an experienced and fair teacher. But I liked Sara, and so I filed it away for future contemplation.

Now, 10 years later, I have two children and the role teaching plays in my life has changed in ways both concrete and abstract. Instead of teaching high school full time, I teach two sections of college writing each semester at a local university. I’m not sure if I’d necessarily make different decisions about when to grant extensions as a matter of motherly principle, but I do now understand that the anxiety and pressure students feel about school plays out at home in a larger family ecosystem. The parents I meet are reacting — even if inappropriately — to stakes that feel much higher than the specific assignment at hand. I’m also less inclined to mount a rigid adherence to a particular deadline; I’m too tired to fight someone about a single student’s single extension.

What I wish I’d understood as a teacher who was not a parent is that when parents call school to ask for a meeting, these calls are coming from a place of insecurity mixed with love. Sometimes that love is buried deep behind other more noxious emotions; it is coated with anger or defensiveness or shame. It’s often driven by the conviction that there simply aren’t enough whatever — spots on the field hockey team, A’s, college acceptances — to go around.

The towns where I taught, like the one where I grew up and the one where I am raising my own kids, are affluent suburban communities where the public schools are often a main draw. Parents who are heavily invested in their children’s education have made some degree of sacrifice, whether financial, personal, or professional, and who are often worried that they’ve prioritized the wrong things, limited their children’s options with their own flaws, or not done enough to protect their kids from the uncertainty inherent in growing from childhood to adulthood.

I wish that parents understood that having high standards is its own kind of care.

My children are not yet in high school, but already I see the same behavior among my fellow parents that once consumed so much of my time and energy as a teacher. An email has gone too long without a response, a consequence is too harsh, expectations are too high. I wish parents saw how much more work it takes to hold students accountable, to prepare and deliver instruction on complex and abstract ideas, to demand more than superficial recall. I wish that parents understood that having high standards is its own kind of care. I’ve come to see high standards in the classroom as the teacherly cousin to what I am trying to do with my own children at home. I wouldn’t look the other way about cheating or intellectual laziness in my classes any more than I would ignore a refusal to do chores or chronically unbrushed teeth at home.

In Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, Sister Sarah Joan asks Ladybird rhetorically if “maybe they are the same thing, love and attention.” Paying attention to students — to their work, to the course’s content — is what teaching is all about. My job would be so much easier if I gave everyone a perfect grade or assigned very little work or expected only simplistic observations in my students’ writing. It’s easier to look the other way at a piece of writing that resembles the voice of a chatbot or a student whose thumbs are fluttering away at her phone just under the desk than it is to hold the student accountable.

There are, of course, examples of behavior from both parents and teachers that are beyond the pale. We’re all familiar with news stories about abusive teachers, with Moms for Liberty’s intimidation tactics and with the Varsity Blues expose, for instance. Most of us have had a teacher who was unfair or vindictive. I’ve fought back tears in meetings with parents known to threaten teachers year after year, sat open-mouthed in response to a father who complained that even when he wrote his son’s papers they did not receive A’s, and seethed with fury at the mother who defended her son’s essay, copied and pasted from SparkNotes.

Nearly every teacher I know says that managing parents has become the hardest part of the job. Energy that might otherwise go to preparing lessons or reviewing student work goes instead to attending meetings, responding to emails, defending classroom rules and grading decisions, or anticipating such problems before they arise.

When I was a high school teacher, parents often showered us with affirmation on Teacher Appreciation Week. We had catered lunches, raffles, and doughnuts in the faculty lounge. I truly appreciated these gestures and the volunteers who made this happen. But each year at this time, I mull over what it means for a profession to have an appreciation week. My husband, a high school science teacher, and I joke about the absurdity of Financial Analyst Appreciation Week or Cardiologist Appreciation Week. It’s not that these people don’t deserve appreciation; it’s just that we already show them appreciation. With money.

In 2021, cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen wrote, “That’s What the Money Is For,” an essay about the material ways parents might show appreciation for teachers and convincing case for taxes as the “best, most seamless, least labor-intensive way of showing we value teacher’s work.” Individually, Petersen suggests, you “can defend [teachers] when people start talking sh*t about them and their unions in Facebook Parent Groups. You can write them with specific and non-performative and non-passive-aggressive ways that they have impacted your child’s life, and be very clear that you don’t expect a response.”

I like Petersen’s suggestions and have tried to implement them myself. At the end of the year, knowing such notes often get saved in a teacher’s file, I try to write to administrators about specific positive experiences my children have had with their teachers. But like a once-a-year celebration of teachers, even these actions are concrete and isolated and have the potential to become about the parent. It’s much harder, more abstract, more ambiguous, and ongoing kind of work to appreciate educators by stepping back, trusting that often teachers can do their jobs best when parents are less, not more, involved.

Amanda Parrish Morgan is the author of Stroller (Bloomsbury) and has written essays for The Atlantic, Wired, LitHub, Guernica, The American Scholar, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two kids where she teaches at Fairfield University, The University of Chicago’s Graham School, and the Westport Writers’ Workshop. She has previously written for Romper about “The Rise of the Concierge Moms.”