Part 4: Difficult Students, Difficult Parents

Note: The following is an excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: A Guide for First-Year Teachers, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” Although this book also elaborates on why teachers stay in the profession (in my case, since 1973), I believe it is important to also address some of the issues that were tripping up many of the teachers I encountered in the survey responses and interviews I did for this book. This chapter includes six challenges facing people entering the teaching profession.

Years ago, when I started presenting keynotes and training seminars to teachers, I offered a number of programs on a variety of topics. Not surprisingly, the programs most often selected have consistently been those that focused on behavior management, particularly with regard to difficult or challenging students. Discipline and motivation consistently register as huge concerns for teachers at all grade levels. Whether we’re dealing with unmotivated students who perform below their capabilities, kids with weak social skills who have a hard time getting along with their peers, learners who struggle with the academic demands of the classroom, students who need a lot of attention, or kids with serious anger and self-control issues, student behavior can become a massive distraction from our instructional objectives. Dealing with defensive, disruptive, defeated, or indifferent behaviors is exhausting and after a while can wear down the most enthusiastic and committed teacher. The fact that so little training is generally offered to help new teachers address behavioral issues—with strategies that are suggested being, for the most part, superficial and ineffective—might explain the consistency with which discipline and behavior management topics in professional development conferences and training programs are so often requested by districts, schools, and the teachers themselves.

Dealing with parents can present special challenges as well. Nancy Gibbs reported on a study that found that “of all the challenges they face, new teachers rank handling parents at the top.”39 In a survey asking contributors to this book to identify the areas in which they felt least prepared when they entered the profession, the topic of “parents” was right up there with discipline and negative student behavior. Many observed a deterioration in not only student behavior but also in parental support during their time in the profession. One primary teacher suspected that she had overstayed her time in the classroom after seeing “what was considered appropriate behavior being replaced with bad behavior and socially accepted excuses for that negativity.” Likewise, high school math teacher Michelle Tillapaugh declared herself “very disgruntled with the lack of discipline” she sees in her work. Joanne Davidman, a family and consumer science teacher observed, “I like the students, but I do feel they are changing in ways that I just do not want to deal with. Kids today can be very rude and at times I feel I need to be an entertainer instead of a facilitator of knowledge.” And another high school teacher, Theresa Weidner, felt she was unprepared “to deal with all the needs these kids have today—whether they are self-imposed, parent-imposed, or biological.”

In some cases, differences in teachers’ expectations, values, and personal experiences made for some rude awakenings. Cindi Allen observed, “My college and student teaching experience had not prepared me for the real classroom. I expected students to listen, obey, and follow the rules…” After all, she figured, she had raised three of her own children and had taught them to respect adults, listen, and cooperate with others. “I assumed all children were trained the same way. What bubble was I living in? I was surprised to see that five- and six-year-olds would lie, cheat, steal, physically hurt others, and much more. I had not seen anything like this in my college and student teaching experience.” Middle school administrator Tammy Hanna, reflected, “I really wish somebody had told me how it would be the parents that would challenge me the most! You just assume that they have the same educational goals for success for their kids that you have. Sadly, for some, education is not a priority. It is hard to convince students to value things their parents do not.”

A number of the educators who contributed to this book felt that many parents had failed to teach their children any form of responsibility, and that they were too quick to deny, defend, or make excuses for misbehavior. I continue to hear stories of parents who bring or fax their children’s assignments to school when the kids forget, and those who actually do the work for their children. (This really isn’t anything new. Years ago, it was not uncommon for me to receive a note from a parent asking me to excuse the child for missing a homework or project deadline because the child “was up too late watching TV.”) Well-meaning as these efforts may be, building accountability and responsibility in our students becomes especially challenging when faced with parents who insist on enabling them.

“I encountered many wonderful parents during my quarter century of teaching,” remarked Aili Pogust. “However, those who were irrational and difficult could cast a pall on a school year. Teaching is extremely stressful with all the demands placed on a teacher’s time. [Difficult] parents affect the dynamics of the whole class.”40 Indeed. During my first parent night, a woman I had never seen before walked into my classroom and started screaming at me. She soon realized that I was not her son’s teacher and that she was in the wrong classroom, at which point she collected herself, walked out (without a word of apology), and started her harangue somewhere down the hall. I was twenty-two years old and had never been addressed with such belligerence and hostility. I was more shocked than upset or hurt, and totally unprepared for this type of encounter, which can, in some settings, actually be a normal part of the job.

Click here to continue reading this chapter. (List of chapters below.)

39 Gibbs, 42.

40 Similar concerns regarding inadequate preparation for dealing with discipline issues, mental health issues (students’ and parents’), and parents in general were expressed by Julia Frascona, Emotional and Behavioral Disability teacher; Michelle Mayrose, Title I reading specialist; Lois Romm, elementary reading teacher; Adrian Schaefer, third grade teacher; Marti Johnson, ED behavior specialist; Diane Laveglia, instructional specialist for staff development; Dot Woodfin, director of character education program; Christie DeMello, eighth grade teacher; Maryann Caprioli, fourth grade special education teacher, and dozens of other contributors, many of whom requested anonymity.

Excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: A Guide for First-Year Teachers, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” This material was taken directly from the final manuscript submitted and may be slightly different from the actual text of the book. For full bibliography listing all of the the resources used in this book (and details on the references listed above), click here.

This chapter includes six challenges facing people in the teaching profession:

Part 1: Financial Realities
Part 2: It’s Harder than it Looks
Part 3: Lack of Support
Part 4: Difficult Students, Difficult Parents
Part 5: Value and Status
Part 6: Issues of Autonomy and Discretion

Also check out:

Book: Managing 21st Century ClassroomsHow to avoid ineffective classroom management practices!
Article: “Great Expectations: Good News for Beginning Teachers
Podcast: “On the Right Foot: Support for Beginning Teachers” with J. Victor McGuire
Presentation: “Great Beginnings: Special workshop for beginning teachers, returning teachers, and preservice teachers

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