What It’s Like to Teach When Parents Just Don’t Show Up

Not all of us are dealing with lawnmower parents.

What it's Like to Teach When You Don't Have Parent Support

Maybe you read this viral article on lawnmower parents and nodded in agreement. Or maybe, like me, you read the piece and sighed ruefully, thinking, “Champagne problems.” Because some of us have the opposite problem: It’s almost impossible to get parents to check grades, show up for conferences, or get involved in their child’s education.

The truth is kids need ALL the adults in their lives to take an interest in their education. If their parents or guardians aren’t involved, that child is missing a crucial part of their support system. The good news is there are ways teachers can help fill in the gap. Here are a few.

Try not to judge.

There are a lot of things that can make it really hard for some parents to show up to school. Lack of transportation, lack of documentation, other kids … all of these are a factor. If you had to miss work—likely unpaid—and ride a city bus with a two-week-old to get to a parent-teacher conference, you might have a hard time showing up, too. We don’t always know what’s going on at home, and it’s generally best to err on the side of compassion.

But know when something isn’t right.

On the other hand, there are times when neglect is a real concern. If kids aren’t getting food or clean clothes or necessary medication, it’s time to make a report to the counselor or whomever is in charge of contacting social services. But again, the goal is to help the family and provide the kid with resources, not pass judgment on families that don’t seem adequately supportive.

Consider ways to make it easier for parents.

Offer phone conferences instead of making parents come in. Consolidate events as much as you can. Combine a curriculum night or the Title I meeting with the band concert to minimize potentially difficult or dangerous trips to the school. Provide translations of materials, including updates to the class website, for nonnative speakers. Offer food at events when you can; lots of grocery stores are willing to donate day-old baked goods to schools. Having a few toys or activities around for younger siblings helps a lot, too.

Provide social services whenever you can.


Maybe the parents aren’t worried about their kids’ grades because they have bigger fish to fry, like legal issues or a lack of basic necessities. If you can refer families to the agencies that can help them, it can make all the difference for the whole family. Plus, it proves to the kid that you’re on their side and are trying to help, and that goes a long way in winning a student over and motivating them to work.

Get other adults involved.

Kids may not have active and engaged parents, but maybe there’s a mentor, an older sibling, a pastor, or a coach who would love a chance to take an active role. Talk to kids. Find out what they’re interested in and figure out ways to get other supportive adults to be a part of the solution.

Recruit mentors.

If you teach near a college, you have an endless supply of mentors. But there are plenty of other sources, too. Religious organizations, community groups, and school alumni can all be valuable resources for kids in need of positive role models.

Remember it’s not the kid’s fault.

It’s tough, because frequently the kids most in need of structure and consistency are the kids who have the least in their home lives. Often it’s the kids who act up in class whose parents won’t or can’t come in for a conference. The parents of the kids who are failing are sometimes the ones who won’t make kids do their homework. Just remember, despite the frustration, to come from a place of compassion when dealing with kids. It’s not their fault. If their parents aren’t supportive, whatever the reason, they need the other adults, like you, in their lives that much more.

Teaching is a tough job, and it’s even harder when your kids lack support at home. While we can’t be everything to every kid, we can enlist help from the community and find resources to make our jobs easier and, most importantly, help provide our kids with what they need.

How do you help students who need extra support? Share your advice in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook. 

Plus, check out how to make working with parents the easiest part of your job.