16 Polite Habits Teachers Actually Dislike—and What to Do Instead
Teachers love and appreciate any kind gesture from parents and students ... but there are some things they love and appreciate a little more
How to support teachers the right way
Teachers are true superheroes. They do so much for our kids every day—not just educating them but also caring for them as their own and acting as makeshift therapists, disciplinarians and advocates. Teachers can literally change a child’s life. Oh, and let’s not forget that they don’t just do this for our child but for dozens of kids at a time! Hopefully you want to express your appreciation for their dedication and maintain a good relationship with your child’s teacher, but it’s surprisingly easy to miss the mark.
Etiquette rules can be confusing, and that’s doubly true when it comes to school etiquette. After all, there’s nothing more personal than your kids, but there is a professional line you need to maintain. Plus, some “polite” things you’re doing may get in the way of the teacher doing their job (or are just plain annoying), even though all the teachers we spoke with emphasized that it really is the thought that counts.
“I would hate for a parent or student to read this and feel like it’s not worth trying,” says Jennie B., a middle school teacher in Minneapolis. “Any help and nice gestures are great, and we’re not looking for perfection!” That’s truly the big thing teachers want you to know. But … since we asked what teachers really find helpful, they shared the scoop on which “polite” habits actually drive them nuts and what they wish you would do instead—from communicating with them to “helping” your child to saying thank you. They also highlighted a few student missteps for another true teaching moment!
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Emailing them about your kid’s missing assignments
You may think the polite thing to do is to handle communication between your child and their teacher—after all, you’re likely better at it, and this keeps you in the loop. But this polite habit may be doing your child more harm than good, at least for kids older than 12, and this misstep goes beyond being a simple etiquette mistake. “I’m teaching kids how to be adults, and one of those skills is taking responsibility for your own work,” says Louis P., a high school math teacher in Utah. “Yet more often than not, the emails I get about missing work, extra credit, test retakes, assignment deadlines and so forth are from the parents.” While this is reasonable for young children, by the time they reach middle school, and especially high school, he says you should be encouraging them to communicate directly with the teacher.
Do this instead: Take a step back, and ask your child to talk to the teacher about any assignment issues. “Sometimes a parent will say, ‘But they can’t,’ ‘They’re too shy’ or ‘They don’t have time,'” says Louis. “My answer? Teach them how to do it, how to push through difficult feelings and how to prioritize their time. Those are all skills they’ll need as adults—and my students will be adults in two years.”
Signing up for the last parent-teacher conference slot so you’ll have longer to talk
There are the parents who don’t show up for any conferences (and then wonder why they don’t know when their child is in trouble), but you can also swing too far in the other direction. “I always appreciate the parents who want to be involved in their child’s education, but sometimes I have parents sign up for multiple slots on parent-teacher night or purposely pick the latest time so that we can ‘talk longer.’ They think it’s polite because then they’re not making anyone wait for them,” says Ashleigh K., an elementary school teacher in Texas. “Don’t do that. I’m exhausted by that point, and I have to give every parent equal time, so it’s not fair to them either.”
Do this instead: Sign up for one slot during parent-teacher conferences, show up on time and finish on time. Period. If you need to talk with the teacher for longer than 15 minutes, schedule a separate time to meet, or send a detailed email. It’s a fine line, we know, and you’ll see that line crossed in these teacher memes.
Sending in boxes of chocolates or candy
When parents send in surprise sweets for a teacher, they’re often meant as a thank-you because the parents feel a card isn’t enough. But while the occasional chocolate bar or bag of candy is OK, with 30-plus students in a classroom, treats are sometimes constantly being brought in, says Jon W., who has worked as a director in early childhood education for 25 years. “I like chocolate as much as the next guy, but it ends up being an unhealthy temptation,” he explains. “Plus, the kids see it and want some, and it can turn into a real distraction.”
Do this instead: Skip the food gifts, says Jon, or ask the secretary to put them in the teacher’s break room, where they aren’t immediately visible to staff and kids. Or if you want to express your gratitude, every teacher we talked to shared how much they love personal notes from both parents and kids. Don’t worry about giving a gift with it—your thank-you note is truly enough on its own, says Jennie.
Disciplining a student for them
Teachers definitely appreciate when parents support appropriate discipline for their children, but coming up with punishments on your own isn’t always helpful, especially if they require the teacher to carry them out. “I had a kid moon me—full-on moon me—because he was angry, and the school suspended him. His mom said that instead of suspension, she’d bring him to the school on a Saturday and he would have to help me clean my classroom. She argued that would be a better consequence for him, since suspension just meant he got a day off school but he absolutely hated cleaning,” says Jennie. “I get it, but that’s a punishment for me too! No thank you! The last thing I want to do is take one of my days off to babysit a surly teenager who’s already mad at me.” (Sounds like the plot of a teacher movie to us!)
Do this instead: “All kids act up sometimes. It’s normal, and we get it,” Jennie says. “We’re not trying to parent your kid—all we ask is that you just work with us on how to deal with the behavior.” When it comes to an effective consequence at school, listen to the teacher and administrators, and support them. (If it feels unjust to you, you can ask to speak to the principal about it.) If you feel like your child needs an additional consequence, like the cleaning chore above, save that for home, when you can supervise.
Gifting personalized “teacher awards”
Of course you want to recognize how much work and effort a teacher does, and thanking teachers is one of the things they appreciate the most. But the form of the “award” is important, notes Maria A., a 25-year veteran teacher in Nevada. “Best teacher” mugs, trophies, paperweights and other tchotchkes that require storage are sweet but not helpful. “The first ‘#1 teacher’ mug is cute, and the second one is OK, but by the third one, you don’t have room for it!” she says.
Do this instead: Skip anything with cute “teacher” sayings, and instead ask your child to share something personal they like about the teacher. “My favorite things in the world are handwritten notes and cards from parents and students,” Maria says. Give them on their own or with a small teacher gift for Teacher Appreciation Week, on a holiday or at the end of the year. You can also send an email to the school administrators and/or the district to let them know how awesome the teacher is—these notes from parents and students can go a long way in deciding promotions, raises and other perks.
Cleaning their desk or supply cabinet
“Organized chaos” is how Marlon J. describes both his teaching style and his desk—and with more than 30 years under his belt as an elementary school teacher in Maryland, it works great for him and his students. “But there was this one class mom who insisted on cleaning my desk for me every time she came in because it looked so messy,” he says. “The thing is, I know where everything is located, even if my system didn’t make sense to her. It was so frustrating to come in and have to ‘unorganize’ everything again.” It would sound like a setup for a funny school story if it weren’t so annoying.
Do this instead: Ask if there are any classroom cleaning chores the teacher would like you to help with. “Even better, ask what needs to be picked up and help the students do it themselves,” Marlon suggests.
Giving them elaborate holiday gifts
The holidays are the season of giving, and all our teachers said they were grateful for gifts big and small, but some of the more elaborate “class gifts” didn’t quite hit the mark. Yes, pooling money from all the parents in a classroom can be a great idea, allowing you to pick out something nicer for the teacher than any one parent could afford on their own. Just be sure you’re spending all that cash on something the teacher truly wants or needs. Some examples our teachers shared of gifts gone awry: A gift basket of expensive wine with glasses … to a teacher who doesn’t drink. A “beach basket” with sand toys, towels, a sun umbrella and cooler … to a teacher who doesn’t have kids, lives in a land-locked state and doesn’t really enjoy the outdoors. And even a $250 gift card for a massage.
“The hard part about the massage gift card was that my husband and I were really struggling for money, and that $250 would have bought a lot of groceries,” says Emily T., an elementary school teacher in Colorado. “I know that the class worked hard to pool their money to give me some pampering—and it was so sweet—but I need food, not a luxury spa treatment. It was a very ‘let them eat cake moment.'”
Do this instead: Worry less about being creative or having a cute theme for the class gift, and stick to things you know the teacher can use. Not sure? “We get paid so little, we really can just use the money,” says Emily. Cash in a nice card is great (although rules vary between school districts about how much money teachers can accept, so ask the school’s office first). But gift cards that can be used for a variety of things—think: Amazon, Walmart, grocery stores or Target—are also great options.
Texting your child reminders during class
Checking in with your kiddo during the day is a natural (and lovely!) parental instinct, but if you’re texting your child every day during class, then you’re becoming more of a distraction than a help. That’s true even if your messages are meant to be “helpful” or encouraging. (One of the top teacher quotes is: “Put away your phones!”)
“I had a kid with ADHD, and his mom would always text him reminders to turn in his homework, get his calculator out of his locker, stay hydrated, eat all his lunch, etc.,” says Louis. “But the best was when she’d text him to ‘pay attention.’ I think those texts were half the reason he couldn’t focus!”
Do this instead: Encourage your child to follow school rules about cell phones in class, and try not to text during school hours unless it’s really important, Louis says. If your child has a special need—like ADHD—discuss with the teacher how best to handle it. This may mean sending in a printed checklist with your child or discussing tasks with your kiddo each morning before drop-off.
But, according to Louis, if your child doesn’t have special needs, letting them figure this stuff out on their own is one of the kindest things you can do for them as a parent. “If they forget to turn in their homework and get a zero, then they’ll learn to remember it for next time,” he says.
Setting up extra programs
Emily’s school has a lot of hands-on parents—which she loves—but she says while the ideas are great, sometimes there’s a lack of follow-through. For instance, a parent organized a weekly Lego club but only made it happen a couple of times. “The kids really enjoyed it and kept asking about it, so I felt an obligation to keep it going,” says Emily. “It ended up taking so much extra time and there was no budget for it, so it became a constant frustration for me.” Plus, she had to find room to store all the Legos in her classroom.
Another similar venture was the “class garden.” Seeds were planted, but after a few weeks, the parent “handed over the reins” to Emily, leaving her in charge of weeding and maintaining plants she didn’t ask for.
Do this instead: Offer to help the teacher with an existing program or one that he/she would like to get off the ground. Commit to helping for a certain period of time, like a semester, and then follow through. If you can’t do all the heavy lifting, set up a schedule with the other parents so you can spread the work around. Doing something nice that inadvertently turns into more work is also one of the polite habits retail workers dislike.
Signing up for every volunteer activity
It can be tough to find parent volunteers to man every outing to the zoo or museum, and all our teachers told us they appreciate the parents who step up. But … you don’t need to do everything. “There’s a line between helpful and domineering, and sometimes I get a parent who feels like because they volunteer so much, they should be in charge of running things,” says Marlon. “The other problem is if you are always there with your kid, they miss out on learning the independence that school can teach.” And if you do live in an area with more parents available during the day, it’s kind to share those spots with others, especially on popular field trips.
Do this instead: Ask your child which activities they’d most like you to be there for, and volunteer for those. Or ask the teacher which events they most need help with. “Everyone wants to chaperone the trip to the IMAX,” Marlon says. “No one wants to sell tickets to the raffle.”
Trying to be their bestie (or more)
The teachers we spoke with told us it’s surprisingly common for parents to ask to hang out outside of school or even go on a date. But whether you just really like your child’s teacher or you’re angling to get more favors for your kiddo, trying to become their teacher’s best friend crosses professional boundaries and can even backfire. “I had a woman who learned that I’m a single dad and started bringing me dinner in a Tupperware container every day,” says Marlon. “First, I’m a great cook, thank you very much, but also, it became pretty apparent that her feelings went past friendly.” This puts teachers in a tough and incredibly awkward spot—imagine if someone did any of these things at your job and think about how you’d feel! FYI, flight attendants and cruise workers have similar complaints.
Do this instead: Don’t ask overly personal questions, gossip about personal lives or try to help with things that aren’t school-related. If you discover the teacher is having a big life problem, like the death of a child or the loss of their home, that is absolutely something the community can help with, and you can start that process by discussing it with school administration. Also, if you are interested in dating your child’s teacher—and parent-teacher relationships aren’t unheard of—it is crucial that you wait until your child is no longer their student and there is no possibility of any of your children being their student in the future, says Emily.
Reading emails but not replying
“I work really hard every Sunday night to send out a comprehensive email to all the parents and students about what we’re covering that week, homework, tests, projects and so forth—plus all the resources and links they need,” says Ashleigh. “It’s really sad when no one replies. I know they appreciate the communications because if I stop, everyone asks where it is, but it would be nice to know they are reading them and paying attention.” One reason parents have given her for why they don’t respond is they worry about cluttering up her inbox with just a “thank you” or “good to know.”
Do this instead: “Don’t worry about cluttering my email inbox with nice messages. The thank-yous make my day!” she says, adding that most parents reach out only when there’s a problem, so it’s great to hear from people who are happy.
One important note: Email preferences can vary greatly from teacher to teacher. Some of the folks we talked to preferred parents to limit their emails to when they need an answer. The best way to know is to ask the teacher and read the syllabus or class guidelines handed out at the beginning of the year or semester. “Most teachers are pretty clear about the style of communication they prefer and how often,” adds Emily.
Baking them cookies or bread
Illnesses run rampant through schools, so it’s not surprising that many teachers are vigilant about hygiene, especially when it comes to their food. “I appreciate the work that goes into baking homemade goodies, but we aren’t going to eat them if we don’t know what the condition of the kitchen is,” says Jenae H., a high school Spanish teacher in Colorado. “I did feel bad throwing them out, but also, watching that kid pick their nose constantly in my class made me feel better about my decision.”
Do this instead: Buy instead of bake. Prepackaged cookies or a gift card to a bakery convey the same warm message but are a more hygienic option.
Oversharing personal information
Knowing when a child is dealing with the death of a pet or family member, if they’ll be traveling out of the country and if they have serious allergies are all things teachers like to be aware of. In fact, these important details can help them know how to better help the student. But some parents go way too far with sharing personal details in an effort to provide context. “I know for sure that one girl in my class would be mortified to know her mom emailed me when she got her first period,” Jennie says. She adds that sometimes parents see her as a personal therapist, venting to her about all the details of their divorce, medical conditions, dating lives or thoughts about politics or religion.
Do this instead: Share information about your child or your family that directly impacts how the teacher interacts with your child. Skip personal details that aren’t relevant or may be embarrassing, and if it’s something you probably shouldn’t talk about at the Thanksgiving dinner table, avoid it in a conversation with your child’s teacher too.
Looking for loopholes to get around school rules
These polite-habit problems don’t only apply to parents, by the way—they also apply to students. From unapproved field trips to watching mature movies in class to sneaking in pets, Louis says his students can be very creative about bending school rules to do things that he admits he also wishes were allowed. “I once told my class how helpful I think animals can be in a learning environment, but obviously we’re not allowed to have them, and the next day the kids showed up with a couple of dogs in ’emotional support animal’ vests,” he says. “It was hilarious and cute, and … the puppies had to go back home.”
Louis also cites this common example: students “promising” not to tell their parents if he lets them do something, like watching a non-approved movie in class or getting out early. No can do, kids!
Do this instead: “It’s hard to say no when it’s things I wish we could do too!” Louis says. “But I have to follow the rules, and I absolutely cannot hide things from your parents, so stop making me be the bad guy. Although, kudos for creativity.”
Not wanting to “bother” them with your feelings
“It’s really important to me to understand how my students are feeling—middle school is a time of big changes and adjustments, and a lot of kids have a tough time dealing,” says Jennie. “But I can’t know what you’re going through if you don’t tell me.” Note: This rule is different for students than it is for parents. While teachers expect adults to be restrained and polite with what they share, they give students far more latitude in what they want to talk about. “If it’s bothering them, I want to hear about it!” she says, adding that learning how to identify and talk about feelings and resolve conflict are important skills that kids can learn and practice at school.
Do this instead: If you’re a student, don’t be afraid to talk to your teacher about things on your mind that may be making you depressed, anxious or fearful. Don’t go into long diatribes about everything you think is wrong with the class or the school (those things aren’t your business), but anything that has to do with you personally? They want to hear about it. Parents can encourage kids to reach out to trusted teachers if they have a problem or need additional support.