Sometimes parents ask teachers to stretch ethical boundaries in ways that seem “small,” like this . . .

“My daughter has never gotten a B on a science test, and you just gave her one,” a mother told a teacher during a tense phone call. “I want you to let her retake the exam, but first I want you to go over the questions she got wrong.”

And sometimes parents make demands that are clearly unethical, like this . . .

“You gave my son a C in physics last term,” a father told a high school teacher. “How did that compare to the median grade you gave to all the students in the class? I want you to increase it to a B.”

The Difficulty of Handling Ethical Questions

We all know that parents want their children to do well in high school and to earn high grades so they can get into the colleges they most want to attend. Sometimes parents are eager to follow good ethical practices in order to reach that objective. Sometimes they make demands that they realize are unethical. At other times, they make demands without realizing that they are asking teachers to violate ethical norms.

It is not always possible for a teacher to determine where parents fall on that ethical scale. But even without making that determination, there are still ways teachers can handle ethically ambiguous conversations with parents.

Provide Context

It can be helpful, for example, to say, “Your child, even though he earned a B on that test, fell into the top 10% of students in the class. I have been working with him on weak areas to make sure he understands concepts that he missed on the last test, and I expect that his grades will improve in the remaining four tests he will take in the course.”

Make It a Collaborative Process

It is unreasonable to expect teachers to fix all areas where a student is underperforming, or where a student has failed to master foundational concepts or skills. So in conversations with parents, it can be helpful to say something like, “I have given your daughter supplemental assignments that should bring her up to speed, and I am expecting her to complete them. Can I ask you to monitor whether she is devoting enough time to complete them?“

In many cases, parents will help teachers achieve desired outcomes if they are given some guidelines about what to do and how to help.

Offer Alternatives

Even though many parents hope that their children will achieve perfect grades on the first try in courses, the fact is that some do not. Students can be encouraged to take a course a second time in order to improve the grade they earned on their first try, for example. Still other students are good candidates for tutoring in subjects they find difficult. Still others respond well when teachers offer them the option of coming in after school for special sessions with a teacher. It is worth explaining those possibilities to parents.

Try to Get Support from School Administrators

One teacher reports, “When I would not raise one student’s grade to an A in my class, the parents met with our Principal, who in turn pressured me to raise the grade. It was very troublesome to be undercut by our Principal, and it made me look like a less effective teacher.”

That is a very big problem if it occurs. One way to alleviate it is to meet with administrators when a parent complains and to explain that a problem has occurred that you believe parents will escalate. As a teacher, you can say, “I need you to back me up on this.”

Keeping the Student’s Best Interests in Mind

We all know that parents who exert unethical pressure on teachers and school administrators often do a great deal of harm to their children, often raising their level of stress.

I was once tutoring a student on the SAT who needed extra sessions if she was to increase her scores to the level that was expected by the colleges where she was applying. But here is what her mother told me . . .

“Carly simply has no more time to come in for more tutoring sessions. She is on a traveling soccer team, is an equestrian, and already sees a math tutor once a week. Isn’t there something you can do . . .”

That “something I could do” seemed to be to find some magic way to help Carly get perfect SAT scores without working to do it. And clearly, I had no ability to do it. All I could do was offer additional SAT tutoring sessions and let the parents decide.

If you are a teacher, you have doubtless found yourself in a similar situation – one in which you couldn’t say something to a parent like, “You have to reduce the number of activities your child is engaged in, to reduce the stress.”

Sometimes a student is simply not going to get an A in every subject he or she takes in high school. But of course, you cannot point that out to some parents. Teachers, even the most caring of them, cannot step into the in loco parentis role and assume parental responsibilities. What we can do, however, is to do the very best possible for every student, even if that means failing to meet every demand we hear from parents.

Further Reading

Did you know that the NEA has published a Code of Ethics for Teachers that covers topics including maintaining a commitment to students and maintaining a commitment to the profession of teaching? It is a good document to know and keep handy as you navigate the daily challenges of teaching. Be sure to check it out here.

To Learn More about Career Planning and Jobs of the Future

We invite all students to explore their career options by participating in our career and college research studies. Students who complete the free career test for high school students will receive information on college and career opportunities matched to their interests.