September 27th, 2017

Examining the Helicopter Professor Label


Professor in lecture hall

Here’s a comment that’s got me thinking.

Kristie McAllum writes in Communication Education, “We have created a system that simply replaces helicopter parents with helicopter professors. . . . Through our constant availability to clarify criteria, explain instructions, provide micro-level feedback, and offer words of encouragement, we nourish millennials’ craving for continuous external affirmations of success and reduce their resilience in the face of challenges or failure.”

Teaching Professor Blog There’s no question that teachers can do too much for students. We can take already dependent learners and make them more so. And there’s also no question that teachers can fail to do enough for students. We can withhold the guidance and support that makes learning experiences positive and constructive. The more interesting question is how we know whether we are doing too much or not enough. It’s a question that applies to individual courses, the programs to which they belong, and within our institutions.

Unfortunately, we can’t be sure about the accuracy of student feedback when they tell us what they need. If they tend to be dependent learners, as many of our students are, they will happily encourage us to make all the decisions about learning, thereby excusing them from making any decisions. And if we aren’t providing enough guidance, they probably won’t divulge that half the time spent working on an assignment was devoted to trying to figure out what we wanted.

Are there other benchmarks we could use to determine if we’re doing too much or too little? Could we look at individual policies and practices? Does extra credit coddle students? What about dropping the lowest score? What if teacher feedback is only provided on the final version of the term paper? Should we call on students who very obviously don’t want to participate? Or, must individual policies and practices be considered in light of course content and who’s enrolled in the course? Do students need more support when the content is especially challenging or requires sophisticated skills they have yet to develop? Does it matter whether the course is one taken by beginning students, majors, students fulfilling a general education requirement, first-generation students, or seniors in a capstone? Are there good reasons to do more for beginning students and less for seniors?

And what about individual differences? Our tendency to broadly categorize students by generation (Generation X, millennials) makes me nervous. This tendency allows for convenient groupings, but it also makes stereotyping an easy next step. Not all students fit in any group and to assume that all millennials act entitled and only want praise can result in approaches to teaching that don’t work for some or even most of the students in any given class.

Most of the characteristics attributed to millennial students are not positive, perhaps deservedly, although it’s hard to believe they don’t have at least a couple commendable features. But whatever we believe about them—they need support and praise, or they need rules and accountability—ends up influencing how we approach them, the policies we adopt, and the strategies we use. We need to be clear in our thinking about who belongs in that group and what best serves the learning of those who do and don’t display the group’s typical characteristics.

I don’t think there’s much chance of reaching consensus in a conversation about how closely teachers, programs, and institutions should hover around students. It’s easy to see the error of the extremes, but where’s the middle? We need a place between the two and a balance of both, but where that place is or how that balance is determined—now that’s what we need to be talking about, even if we end up disagreeing.

Currently, being labeled a helicopter parent or professor is not an accolade. But as we consider our relationships with students and their learning needs, we need to remember that hovering is what makes helicopters unique and useful. They just need to do it at a safe distance and that’s the distance we need to discover.

Reference: Kristie McAllum, (2016) Managing imposter syndrome among the “Trophy Kids”: Creating teaching practices that develop independence in millennial students. Communication Education, 65 (3), 363-365.

  • pat bowne

    Of all the things I might do for students, being willing to “clarify criteria, explain instructions, provide micro-level feedback, and offer words of encouragement” are the ones which most obviously fall within my job description.

    It’s easy to fall into an attitude in which the most obvious thing in a class becomes whether students can follow my directions without being nagged, reminded, and coached. But they are not in class to learn to follow my directions – they’re in class to meet the course outcomes, in my case related to pathophysiology. It’s unavoidable that to demonstrate those outcomes they must follow my directions for assessment, but that doesn’t change the fact that my directions are idiosyncratic to my personality and the standards of the institution, and don’t always represent the context in which students will use what I’m teaching them. Therefore, my directions are of secondary importance and it is incumbent upon me to do what’s necessary to translate them from ‘clear to Pat’ into ‘clear to the student.’

    Every discussion I have about directions, hopefully, should circle back around to the course outcomes and how the student will demonstrate mastery of them. I don’t always achieve that, but I get closer every year.

  • Dave Porter

    Thank you for another intriguing and provocative article. Many of us share your struggles, frustration & attendant ambivalence.

    Here is what I take from your message: education is a profession and requires consideration of many complex issues in planning, exceptional skill in delivery, and sufficient assessment to provide the opportunity for adaptation and continuous improvement.

    I think its these challenges that make our jobs such fun and so rewarding. This is just as true for me in my classroom today as it was nearly 50 years ago when I was struggling mightily under a blazing West Texas sun to master the techniques required to control my tiny TH 55 helicopter.

    Cheers ;D

  • Perry Shaw

    Another wonderful challenging article,Maryellen Weimer. Thank you.
    What comes to mind is that while we have great responsibility in facilitating student learning, if we do too much we are failing to prepare our students to be lifelong learners.

  • I think the questions you raise, Maryellen, are about balancing the science of learning with the art of teaching. The science of learning is the evidence from the pedagogical literature that indicates how we best learn, and this literature and evidence is rich: We know active learning works. However, how we best implement the science of learning in our own classes involves the art of teaching which includes the issue of the learning environment or context in which the students are placed by us – the teachers. Each of those contexts will be different and require our judgement how to best implement the science of learning. It is insufficient to simply plug in a teaching strategy based upon educational research without considering the context in which it is being used. I have had many conversations with new instructors who try an active learning strategy and then complain that it didn’t work like they expected based upon what they read in the pedagogical literature. Often, this results from a lack of consideration of whether the course is content-dense, introductory vs advanced course or whether the learners in the course are mature or novice learners. All of these and more impact how to best implement our teaching and learning strategies. And unfortunately, we have not yet produced the algorithm that can calculate for us how to do this in the different contexts of the different courses we teach. It requires judgement on our part which constitutes the art of teaching.