Are Helicopter Teachers a Thing?

Helicopter parenting is defined as a style of child rearing in which an overprotective mother or father discourages a child’s independence by being too involved in the child’s life.

Within education circles, the Helicopter Parent (HP) that continually hovers and rescues their child at first sight of challenge or discomfort, is held in disdain. Personally, I tend to side with Alfie Kohn on this one:

The HP is neither as pervasive nor as pernicious as is commonly assumed. Strident declarations to the contrary may tell us more about the people who make them than about the reality they presume to describe.

I can partner with parents who are accessible and engaged in their child’s education; it’s the parents I don’t see that are more problematic.

I’ve heard teachers denounce the HP only to dive into the pool of hypocrisy by then rolling out the pedagogical equivalent, command and control, under the guise of good practice. If we, as educators, are regularly solving problems and making decisions for students, does that not make us “helicopter teachers”? Try replacing parents with educators in the following paragraph:

In order to become well adjusted, children need to experience the full range of emotions. Parents who want their children to always be happy are doing their children a disservice. Children need the freedom to make mistakes and experience boredom, sadness, frustration, anger, disappointment and hurt. Children need opportunities to learn to cope with life’s minor challenges. Children who ‘have a go’ at sorting out most of their own issues develop a strong internal locus of control, that is they believe they are able to cope with stress and solve their own problems. — Psych4schools.com.au — Helicopter Parents

What work are you doing or decisions are you making that could be given to students? Do we give students enough opportunities to solve their own problems?

This quote makes the rounds on social media a fair bit, and on the face of it, sounds pretty good. According to Dr Tina Boorgen, multitasking teachers are responsible for around 1500 decisions per day, or about four per minute. Suck it, brain surgeons! Teachers are awesome! But I have a problem, I don’t think teachers shouldn’t be wearing this stat as a badge of honour.

Teachers are awesome, but if we really are making 1500 decisions a day on behalf of our students, we’re doing it wrong. What I’ve learned over the past year is that the less I do, the more time and space I create for Ss to do the work and make their own decisions. This idea contradicts those who preach that to do better than yesterday, teachers must “do more!” I firmly believe that the person making the decisions and doing the work is the person doing the learning. Who is doing the work in your classroom? What is the work?

Graphic C/- busyteacher.org

I don’t think this is a bad graphic, most of the roles it describes are very much part of the job. Facilitator and role-model I can absolutely get on board with. This definition of foster parent, sure. Assessor, information provider and administrator are essential too. But any teacher taking sole and total responsibility for these expectations and jobs could be considered the very definition of a helicopter teacher. The best educators I know build capacity in students to perform all of these roles, perhaps most importantly, the role of discipline controller…

Me: Is there a worse term in education than behaviour management?

Busyteacher.org: Hold my beer, I’ve got this…

That’s a new one for me. “What would you like to be when you grow up Jimmy?” *channelling his inner Oliver Twist* “Oh sir, I desperately wish to be a discipline controller!” I recently shared my views on behaviour management and behaviour education which I won’t rehash here, but suffice to say, nope.

What about administrivia? This year, for the first time in my career, I didn’t have a Pinterest perfect classroom waiting for students on day one. What I did have was a pile of furniture in the middle of the room and several unpacked boxes of supplies. We had no posters, dictionaries, diaries, timetables or books. No prizes for guessing who did all that work. Students designed and set-up our classroom, and they are responsible for cleaning much of it. They order the art supplies and stationery based on each individual’s needs. Our classroom is our shared space, not just my space. I want students to feel a sense of belonging and ownership, so it stands to reason that they would contribute to designing and maintaining it.

Trust is a powerful but underutilized tool in schools. In my experience, showing genuine trust in students is almost always rewarded. Maybe not immediately, but wait long enough, trust long enough, it will happen. I used to tell students to “trust me”, that I knew what was best for them and their learning. But I had it backwards, I needed to trust them, I needed to let go of the controls and let them fly for a while. I am a helicopter teacher no longer.

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