Emily Grant (Washburn), Helicopter Professors:
Helicopter professors, like their parenting counterparts, hover over students, guiding them precisely, and swooping in to rescue them from any hint of failure or challenge. Just as helicopter parenting can be harmful to children, helicopter professoring poses similar threats to students, not the least of which is creating disengaged students dependent on professors for all aspects of their learning and development.
The instinct to be a helicopter professor is understandable in light of several social and cultural circumstances of today’s legal education. First, law students today are largely Millennials who were helicoptered parented and educated in a system that often focused solely on test results. Second, law professors are at times overly focused are garnering positive student evaluation scores, which may be easier to do with a little extra spoon feeding. Professors too may themselves be helicopter parents in their non-work hours, a behavioral pattern that too easily can infiltrate the classroom. Finally, law schools today are seeing a rise in students that have a consumerist attitude and in some cases lower academic credentials; those types of students expect and perhaps need additional assistance. But satisfying that need, combined with the focus on quantifying assessment practices and on improving teaching techniques, may easily cross the line into helicopter behavior.
This Article, after detailing the factors that contribute to the helicopter professoring phenomenon, provides a theoretical framework for understanding helicoptering behavior as well as guidance for avoiding the negative manifestations of such behavior. Looking to parenting literature and advice rendered about how to not be a helicopter parent, this Article outlines a teaching style to help professors be responsive to students’ needs, maintain high expectations of their students, and yet avoid the harmful helicoptering behavior that can stunt individual learning and development. Offering practical suggestions and also ways to navigate the contemporary law school environment, this Article seeks to encourage professors to be authoritative educators who help develop internally-motivated learners who become successful, self-sufficient attorneys.
[S]tarting in the upper-left quadrant, permissive (or indulgent) teachers are involved in and devoted to teaching, but they fear causing stress for students and often pitch their classroom information and pace to the slowest learner. These teachers often supplement class lectures with handouts and PowerPoint slides and other student guides, making it nearly impossible for someone to fail. “They spend countless hours working with students who ask for help.” Permissive teachers set deadlines but they tend to be flexible in enforcing them, making special arrangements for students as needed.
At the other extreme, neglectful teachers are neither responsive to students nor demanding in any particular way. “The come to class, deliver the same lectures year after year, discourage questions and make their escape with as little student contact as possible.” Neglectful teachers make no effort at class discipline, ignoring any misbehavior that arises, and tend to view students as threatening and complaining.
Authoritarian teachers have little involvement or engagement with students but nonetheless maintain strict discipline in their classrooms. They expect high achievement and assign grades appropriately, but tend to make no exceptions for rules or deadlines. Authoritarian teachers are not nurturing, may ignore requests for help, and often do not provide any personal attention or encouragement to students.
Authoritative teachers are those with a high level of responsiveness and involvement, combined with tough standards and fair discipline. They care about their students and are willing to help, but are also cautious to maintain boundaries in terms of their time and energy. Authoritative teachers reward good performance, not just effort, and they encourage students as needed. “They think carefully about their rules and standards, announce them in advance, explain why they are necessary and enforce them constantly.” But they are also willing to extend special dispensation if circumstances justify it under school policy.
Helicopter parents, and thus helicopter professors too, fall into one of two categories on the grid: they are either authoritarian or permissive. Authoritative teachers, on the other hand, are preferred by students and often more effective. One study asked college students to evaluate hypothetical teachers who were permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative. Students rated the authoritative professor higher in terms of quality, clarity, and helpfulness, and they expressed a higher likelihood of taking a class with that professor.
Additionally, authoritative teachers “seem to promote confidence in addition to well-being, engagement, and high hopes for the future.” In one experiment, psychologists worked with seventh grade teachers who were providing written feedback on student essays. After the teachers provided written comments that they would normally give, researchers attached a Post-it note to all papers. Half of the notes (the placebo group) read “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” The other half of the notes (the “wise” feedback group) read “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
The teachers returned the essays to the students and gave them an opportunity to revise their work. Twice as many students in the “wise feedback group” opted to turn in a revised essay, 80% as compared to just 40% of the placebo group. And in a follow-up study with a different sample, students in the “wise feedback group” made twice as many edits as the students who received the placebo Post-it note.
This is not to say that anyone can avoid being a helicopter professor merely by carefully drafting Post-it notes. Rather, these studies suggest that a simple message communicating high standards and encouragement can have a dramatic impact on students. How much more of a difference can professors make if they adopt that approach in all aspects of their teaching—communicating high standards in an encouraging manner, and at the same time, avoid helicoptering or smothering their students?