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Are You a Snowplow Teacher?

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To hear Ken read this post aloud, click the link above.

We’re all pretty aware of helicopter parents, the kinds of parents who will do just about anything to keep their children from failing. They hover over their kids, just waiting to swoop in and solve their problems for them. Although helicopter parenting became a popular enough term in 2011 to be added to the dictionary, the term was coined much earlier. Surprisingly so.

It was in his book Between Parent & Child that Dr.Haim G. Ginott first discussed his idea of “helicopter parents”: in 1969! Although many teachers may find that it’s the parents of millenials that perfected helicopter parents, it’s actually been around for decades.

Even more interesting is the notion of “snowplow” parenting, which takes the matter even further. According to Parents blog, snowplow parents don’t just hover waiting to solve their children’s problems. They actually work to remove any problems or other obstacles from their children’s paths.

Like a snow plow clearing the snow off the street, a snowplow parent removes any obstacles in their child’s way. This type of parent does not want their child to experience any discomfort or problems, so the parent intervenes and fixes it for their child. (cited blog)

This NY Times article from 2019 claims most snowplow parents are ultra-wealthy and ultra-elite people who want only “the best” for their children and many are even willing to break the law to get their students into the schools of their choice or otherwise push aside anything that might get in the way of their child’s dreams. However, ask any teacher working with students of any socio-economic class, and you’ll find that most of them have dealt with dramatically over-involved parents. 

While admirable in some respects, snowplow parenting is ultimately dangerous because it keeps young people from learning how to cope with adversity, to solve their own problems, and develop the skills of resilience and creating problem-solving that being a product and happy adult requires. In fact, it’s a great way to set up most people for failure.

What is Snowplow Teaching?

Like parents, many teachers love their students, as I do mine, and they can fall into the same trap of giving students so much help in succeeding that the students don’t develop the skills they will need to be successful and happy in the future. 

Snowplow teachers create worksheets, advice sheets, scaffolds, study guides, and other materials that do so much of the thinking for their students, that the students need do little more than apply work that the teacher did to a new assignment. For example, think of 5-paragraph essay advice, such as the popular (and silly) hamburger essay structure. Or, think about advice such as starting the answer to a test essay question by restating the prompt as the first sentence of the essay. Neither of these pieces of advice do more than teach students a single approach to a testing situation. They are learning virtually nothing about actually writing well. But they may well still pass standardized writing exams.

This kind of teaching, while well-intentioned, isn’t helpful. In fact, quite the contrary. Good teachers should examine their teaching to see if they have fallen victim to their good intentions and have created assignments and materials that are actually preventing their students from learning and growing. Of course it’s important to create helpful scaffolds for students–such as potential essay formats and advice sheets–but those scaffolds must include only as much help as students actually need, and they should be removed and students master the tasks. At that point, good teachers will move students to more difficult tasks, so they continuously gain new experience, increase their skills, and become comfortable with intellectual challenges without giving up.  

Am I a Snowplow Teacher?

If you think of yourself as a nice teacher, you might be a snowplow. Only a close examination will help you know for sure. Try asking some of these questions of yourself:

  • Do you repeat the same exercises with the same materials to help students get better and better at a single task, such as writing a response to a standardized essay prompt?
  • Are you terribly disappointed in yourself and/or your students when students fall one or two points short on exams?
  • Do you think “practice makes perfect”?
  • Do you find yourself working harder than your students on their work?
  • Do students routinely ask you questions that they should already know the answers to?
  • Do you find that students can’t complete assignments well without your help, even after they completed similar assignments?
  • Do your students express frustration quickly when they meet challenging work in your class?

If you answered yes to a few of these questions, you may indeed be a snowplow teacher.

What Can I Do?

The good news is that acknowledging this problem is the first step toward solving it.

  1. The first thing to do is to make your worksheets, study guides, essay templates OPTIONAL for your students. Encourage them to try working on the assignments BEFORE you give them additional materials.
  1. Encourage your students to ask each other questions about the assignment and for help in pairs or in small groups. 
  1. When your students get stuck, ask them to write to you for help, rather than just going over to assist them. Having students explain the trouble they are having can help them figure out their own problems before they send the message to you.
  1. Try to develop confidence in your students’ abilities, and be ready to explain to them that you know they are ready for more advanced work

Finally, don’t be upset. Snowplow teaching is usually a sign that you are a caring, concerned teacher who wants the best for the students. Some snowplow teachers just don’t want to trouble themselves by actually helping students learn (instead of just passing tests to get parents and administrators off their backs); however, this definitely is not the case for you. If it were, you wouldn’t have read this post to the end!