Help! I Caught a Student’s Mom Spying On Other Kids’ Grades

It’s a privacy violation.

Illustration of a chained up gradebook on a desk with a hand reaching toward it

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I was so excited to finally welcome parent volunteers back into my third-grade classroom after such a long time. This one mom has been asking to help all year, and she just had her first day in the classroom. I gave her a bunch of tasks, like making copies and stuffing Friday Folders. She did a great job. The problem is, I caught her taking a peek at my gradebook. Whoa! I was super surprised she crossed that line. I’m newer to teaching, but I know this is inappropriate. I don’t know how to talk to her about it. Can you help? —Stop Snooping

Dear S.S.,

Yikes! Working with humans can be messy sometimes. Even though you are newer to teaching, you’ve got this! There are ways to address this awkward situation and still be gracious and maintain the support of your parent volunteer. First off, let your administrators know what happened. If things go sideways, they can step in to support and already have the context.

Parent volunteers in the classroom can help reduce your workload, but they can also support the wide range of student needs. Additionally, a volunteer presence nurtures trusting relationships and exemplifies the importance of contributing to a community. Being an example of service to kids is important! As teachers, we can highlight the many different ways that families help, and we can create opportunities for the kids to express gratitude, too. Maybe with a song, a letter, art, or words of appreciation.

I know it’s challenging to address difficult parent issues. This parent DID cross the line by looking at your gradebook. I’d reach out to the parent by email or phone and ask to set up a brief time to talk without their child present. Let her know it’s not an emergency, but there is something you’d like to discuss. Once you settle on a time, I’d say something like, “You have been making a positive impact in our classroom. Your help is greatly appreciated, and I’m hoping we can stick to the schedule that works for you. Your child and many other kids are happy to have your presence here.


“I also wanted to bring up a privacy issue. I noticed that you were looking at my gradebook, and I’m guessing that you would like an update on your child’s progress. I’d be happy to give you some more information about your child. I can share what’s going well academically as well as areas of growth. But I wanted to be clear that it’s not OK to look at the other students’ progress. It’s my job to protect the privacy of each and every child. Do you have any thoughts to share about the situation?”

I would call her out but in a way that acknowledges that she cares about her child. We are curious beings, and I bet a lot of people would peek given the opportunity. Be sure to follow up with a thank-you email for the time and reminder of the next time to volunteer so that you can move forward with the support and she can continue to be of service.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
Is it OK for teachers to give cash prizes to students? I thought my co-teacher was kidding when she said that she handed out $5 bills to three kids who won a game. I’ve also heard that some teachers at my school buy gift cards as prizes for different competitions.  I tried talking to my co-teacher to find out why she chose to use money as a reward. She was defensive and said that it’s motivating and that we don’t work for free.  I  tried to tell her it wasn’t appropriate, but she has continued to use cash as a reward. Now what? —This Feels Wrong

Dear T.F.W.,

I think many of us are cringing right now as we read this post. I talked to a recent high school graduate to get his perspective about cash prizes in classrooms. Kory Watson, a San Diego native, said, “It’s not a job. It’s school!” He went on to state this feels “greasy, odd, and off.” Kory doesn’t think it’s moral for educators to act in this way. He emphasized that eventually, kids will get jobs, and teachers should focus on learning and building community instead of reinforcing competition. Maybe we can agree that classrooms shouldn’t be turned into game show studios.

You mentioned that your co-teacher believes the prizes motivate the students. There is a plethora of information about motivation with intrinsic and extrinsic reward systems in the classroom. Elizabeth Mulvahill, a contributing editor to WeAreTeachers, explains the difference between these two big ideas: “Intrinsic motivation is doing something for the sake of personal satisfaction. The primary motivator is internal (i.e., you don’t expect to get anything in return). You are intrinsically motivated when you do something simply because it makes you feel good, is personally challenging, and/or leads to a sense of accomplishment. For example, a student may be intrinsically motivated to read because it satisfies their curiosity about the world and brings them a sense of calm. Intrinsic motivation is doing something ‘just because.'”

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, “is doing something to earn a reward or to avoid punishment. The primary motivator is external (i.e., you expect to get something for completing a certain task, or you want to avoid a consequence for not doing something). For example, a student studies for a test because they want to earn a good grade. Or they mind their behavior because they don’t want to lose their recess. Students choose behaviors not because they enjoy them or find them satisfying, but in order to get something in return or avoid an adverse outcome.” In our classroom spaces, we may use both systems. The important thing is to reflect on the consequences (both intended and unintended)  of the different reward systems.

The choice to reward kids with cash monetizes the students’ value at a young age and minimizes the intrinsic benefits. Let’s consider some possible unintended consequences to something that may seem motivating and harmless. When teachers pass out cash and gift cards as rewards to a competition, they are training them to get stuck in a “rat race” mentality. The rat race is defined as a “way of life in which people are caught up in a fiercely competitive struggle for wealth or power,  exhausting, usually competitive routine.” Instead, we can focus on teaching and demonstrating community, learning, and being a team player instead of creating a pseudo consumer society and mini capitalist market.

Let’s put more of an emphasis on nurturing a positive classroom culture, where students feel good about learning and helping one another, over consumerism. The games can be fun without the cash prizes. Applaud for kids! Smile! Have them share what they are proud of. In the book Wonder by J.G. Palacio, Auggie asserts, “Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world.” Let’s stand up and cheer for the game winners instead of giving them cash.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’ve worked 26 years in elementary education, and this is a first for me as a principal. Our yard duty reported that she and others had observed one girl straddling a pole and pole dancing. There were two other girls who were “making it rain.” The support staff said this to the girls: “Excuse me, ladies? Really?” After that, everyone scattered. When I talked to the yard duty, she stated that the pole dancing conversation is above her pay grade. So, I’m a bit stuck on how to address my students acting like strippers. Any thoughts and suggestions for how to address this would be appreciated. —There’s A First Time For Everything

Dear T.A.F.T.F.E.,

Thanks for bringing up this layered issue. Your role as principal is just so complex, unique, and dynamic. The day this issue came up was probably one of a hundred other things you had to respond to. I think it’s best for you to monitor the playground situation and ensure that people’s biases don’t take over. There is a line between building self-awareness, shaping behaviors, and shaming students. Teaching kids about school-appropriate behavior takes persistence! Having a conversation with the families might be warranted, but make sure to share that the kids aren’t in trouble for dancing. The girls are likely imitating performers they see on their screens.

OK, I’m going to say it. Just because the students are dancing on and around a pole does not mean they are acting like “strippers.” And if they are acting like strippers, that is a job that some people do to earn their living. I’m not saying that we should be training our kids to work as strippers. Also, I’m not saying that people who are strippers are bad people. I am saying that we shouldn’t teach kids to look down on people. With a quick Google search, I learned that there are many pole dancing classes that people pay to attend for fitness here in San Diego. Also, many dancers use props. Think about circus performers and the ropes they use. Watch the past ten years of the Super Bowl, and you will see plenty of diverse dance moves in the public eye.

We all know that recess supervision is a really TOUGH job and woefully underpaid. Most of us educators can agree that a good portion of behavior issues escalate during recess. When playground supervisors circulate and see snapshots of situations and make comments without explanations, students may be confused about expectations. It might help to meet with your yard duty staff to help build their skills around reminding, reinforcing, and redirecting language. It takes practice to use language more intentionally, and it can also make the support staff feel more confident and effective.

So, keep moving forward with a dignified and thoughtful approach to students, yard duty, and families. Talking to the families in a way that shows concern without making anyone feel shame is a good next step. And when we describe school-appropriate behaviors, we need to go beyond what isn’t OK and include what is OK. Let them dance! “Dance beneath the stars as you drink in the night. Let the thunder overtake you as lightning fills the sky. Feel the force of nature penetrate your skin. Spin the world as the magic sinks in.” —Christy Ann Martine

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Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’ve been feeling obligated to socialize with the elementary staff I work with. Every week a group goes to happy hour, and they meet up on weekend hikes about once a month. I’ve gone before, but honestly, by Friday night, I’m wiped out and just want to go home and eat and watch a good show. Now, one of the administrators is having a big birthday party at her home on Saturday night. It’s super nice of her to open up her home. She even stopped me in the hallway and said, “I’ll see you Saturday night, right?” Ugh! I feel obligated to go and that if I don’t show up, I may fall out of favor.  Any ideas on how I can have a better work and life balance?

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Illustration: Jennifer Jamieson

Help! A Parent Volunteer Is Snooping in My Gradebook