Parents and Privacy

I’ve been teaching for about five years, and for the first time I had parents contact me on their children’s behalf. I understand the impulse, but it puts me in a weird place.

In K-12 parents are expected and encouraged to be involved, and if there’s a problem, parents are invited to meet with the teacher. Sometimes the student isn’t invited at all. The difference at the college/university level is that, because of privacy laws, I’m not allowed to discuss a student’s performance in my class with anyone, even parents. Even if the parents are paying the way. Even if the student is still a high school student or under 18. Some professors go so far as to not acknowledge that a student is in their class.

I think this is an excellent idea for many reasons: 1) Student should be responsible for their performance. Many of my students are over the age of eighteen and there needs to come a time for people to stand on their own. 2) It really is no one else’s business what grade a student gets. If I were to have a performance review, that wouldn’t be shared with all and sundry. Sometimes, the athletic folks have the students ask me to sign a sheet that indicates they are doing well in the class–but that’s from the student. (I don’t know if they can opt out, since athletics require a certain GPA in order to stay on the team). 3) It keeps students who are in unhealthy relationships (with parents, with significant others safer. 4) It’s far less complicated. I don’t have to weigh a bunch of factors to determine who to tell what. Students are in control of what they share and with whom. 5) Students and professors have a shared knowledge of what went on in the class that someone outside of the class wouldn’t be able to easily replicate, often many weeks worth. That’s not easy to penetrate for an outsider.

The only difficulty arises when parents who have been closely involved with their children’s educational experience so far want to continue this into the college years. They often become frustrated that professors can’t talk about their son or daughter’s performance. Some of them seem to think we’re just being obstinate. But we aren’t. We’re following the law.

I even understand the impulse–for a very long time, parents have been the primary advocates for their children. And it got to be difficult when their child is unhappy and the parents aren’t allowed to do anything about it. But at some point, those children become adults and have to be their own advocates and make their own decisions about what they want and need. The students must be able to talk to the professor (boss, coworker, spouse, bureaucrat) and if that doesn’t work, the individual must be able to assess what they want to do next (try the next level? try again with the person with whom they are having the conflict? drop it and accept what comes with that?). It’s all part of being an adult (and we all have moments that we wish someone would swoop down and clear the obstacles, but that’s not likely for most of us most of the time) and being a fully formed and grown person.

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