Helicopter vs snowplow

Working in the dean’s office has given me all sorts of new respect for the Dean of Students office. Specifically, I’ve been very impressed at how they leverage students’ parents when helping the students get through tough times. My experience before the dean’s office was cloaking myself in FERPA and basically not talking to parents from the initial recruiting meetings (when I often try to keep eye contact with the potential student) to graduation, when I’m happy to both pose for and take pictures of the family.

But in the dean’s office, I am beginning to see how useful parents can be. If they reach out to us (or the dean of students office) with concern, they kick us into action, even though we’re unable to call them back. Typically we figure out if the student is ok and we convince them to call their parents to let them know.

I was teaching a class once and I was curious how often students contacted their parents. I asked “who has contacted their parents once this week” and most hands went up. So I began to raise the contact number and the hands started to go down. Except for one student. Theirs stayed up, even as I went extreme just to get them to bring the exercise to the end. “Ten times?” Nope. “One hundred times?” Nope. Finally they said “my mom is my best friend and I’ve texted her twice during this class.” I used to tell that story to warn of ‘helicopter parents’ but I’m beginning to see it differently. That parent, as with most, knows their students quite well, and can often act as an emotional guide when tough college-based decisions come up. “Should I do my calc homework or audition for the play?” “Should I try for 3As and a C or 2As and 2Bs?” I don’t think there’s one answer for those sorts of questions, and often the answer is best a set of further questions. But what I’ve learned is that parents are really good at helping students in situations like that. If they need straight academic advising, I’m good at it. But holistic advising? I need help, and parents, even helicopter parents, can be a great tool to leverage.

So I think I can like the concept of ‘helicopter parent’. They are there for support when the student needs it, but, just like my July hobby of watching the Tour de France, they don’t impede.

However, there is a type of parent that I struggle with: the snowplow parent. This is the parent that pushes everything out of the way and chooses the path. That’s a very different beast than a helicopter parent.

I was recently talking to parents of new first year students and I realized that I had a good example of how I went from a snowplow research advisor to a helicopter one as I got better at it. When I first began working with research students (typically in the summer), I would be in my office working on something (typically my teaching plans for the fall) and a student would come in to say that the laser wasn’t aligned anymore. So I’d walk back to the lab with them and show them how to do it. Really I would elbow them out of the way and align it for them, thinking that they’d get more done with an aligned laser than not. I never really realized that I wasn’t doing a good job, but I should have realized how that connected to how they’d act during poster sessions. They’d happily tell anyone who stopped by all about their poster, but when asked a question, like “why this approach” or “have you thought of …” or “I would have …” they’d gaze around the room looking for me in the hopes I’d come and rescue them. Which I would, with answers like “oh, we do it this way because I knew it would work well” and “they’ve probably never heard of that approach but it’s a good idea” and “that’s a good idea, let’s you and me go talk about it.”

See, snowplow advising. Hurts to read, doesn’t it.

Then one summer I had to be gone for two weeks and I left my students behind with a long todo list. I broke my promise to check in with them via email so I was nervous the day I got back. As I walked into the lab, I immediately got furious. I was mostly mad at myself, but I’m sure it came off as furious with them. I walked up to the apparatus they’d built saying “there’s no way this will work” and I started taking it apart. As I was doing that I mentioned that another section of the apparatus was a mistake as well. Then they said “STOP!”. I said “What?” And then they said the two bravest words I’ve ever heard students say to me: “Get Out!” They explained that they’d tried lots of variations and they’d finally found a way to get the experiment to produce actionable data. As I went out to the hallway, still steaming, mind you, I finally realized that’s what success looks like.

So now I try to be a helicopter advisor. I set up an environment where they can learn and I hover, making sure they’re making good decisions. If they get stuck, I try to remember to ask good follow up questions hoping they’ll figure a way out, and I now realize that ending a summer with good data that I’m solely responsible for with a bunch of students who’ve watched me do it is a waste.

So, I think I’d like to be a helicopter advisor and I think I like helicopter parents. Just don’t be a snowplow.

Thoughts? Here are some starters for you:

  • I like this. I especially like . . .
  • I hate this, I especially hate . . .
  • I think FERPA gets in the way. I wish I could call parents. Here’s what I’d say . . .
  • I love FERPA, I never talk to parents and I hope I never have to. Here’s why . . .
  • How can you defend helicopter parents? When they hover my students suffer and here’s why . . .
  • I live in Florida, what is a snowplow?
  • I think the lesson you should have learned is to not bother coming in in the summer.
  • What are those students doing now?
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About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in dean, research, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Helicopter vs snowplow

  1. bretbenesh says:

    I like this reclaiming of the word “helicopter.” Also:

    “I love FERPA, I never talk to parents and I hope I never have to. Here’s why . . .” I don’t know how to balance that fact that my students are adults with the fact that their parents care a lot about them. Additionally, I don’t know the family situation, so I don’t know if I am always going to be helping if I speak to parents. FERPA gives me the cover to not have to think about navigating these relationships—I have enough to do already.

    I would love to hear someone convince me that I am wrong about FERPA. I want to be wrong, but this is the honest answer.

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      For me, I always like the cover FERPA provided to force students to come talk to me. Their parents would say to them “you have to go find out what you need to do” and then I could have the good advising conversation with them. In hindsight, I think I’ve had lots of those conversations that were actually initiated by parents.

  2. D Norberg says:

    You missed “FERPA is not a thing for me – I’m a high school teacher – they make me talk to parents”. It seems as if parents and educators are often trying to keep students from failing (which is great), but how will they ever know what they are capable of if they always have so much support? I’m not saying we should throw kids into the deep end and see which float, but maybe knowing the safety nets are there don’t always let students see how far they can go. It’s a fine line to walk – and it’s different for every student. It’s a lot worse in K-12, though – because the systems are structured for the masses, not the individual.

  3. Andy Rundquist says:

    I think this is one of the huge differences between high school and college. Being married to a K12 educator, I’m always amazed at the energy needed to keep parents up to speed on things. Certainly I’m able to dodge that with my FERPA cape, but articles like this really make me think that we need to think more carefully how to navigate this space: https://www.bu.edu/pilj/files/2015/09/18-2ChapmanNote.pdf

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