Waiving Goodbye to Your Student

Yesterday I was listening to a recent podcast from the Radiolab series titled “American Football.” I am not a football fan, but the first half of the show was dedicated to the amazing story of football at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where the game was used both to assimilate Native American students to the dominant culture and to gain these students wider recognition and respect.

The story begins by recounting how students at Carlisle were given a radical makeover upon arrival to erase all visible traces of their heritage.

Host Jad Abumrad introduces a clip  featuring Eric Anderson, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University: “Just imagine the parents, he says, the first time they see their kids,” and then we hear Anderson saying “Parents are seeing their students marched around in essentially the uniforms of what had been not very long before the uniform of the enemy.”

I was fascinated by this story but this moment in it bothered me a bit. Notice that Abumrad refers “their kids” but Anderson calls them “their students.”

But these are the students of the school, not the students of the parents.

I first became aware of this pattern when I was doing a lot of recruiting work at my university, often speaking with parents. I noticed that staff members when addressing parents of potential students often referred to them as “your students.” This struck me is a bit alienating: all of a sudden your relationship has shifted in a radical way: you may still be a parent, but your relationship to your offspring is being defined by their relationship to the school—the school they are leaving you to dive into, the school that in many ways is replacing you, in loco parentis. 

Hey! This is my kidyour student—not my student!

Professors addressing parents don’t normally speak to them of “your student,” but it turns out this phrase is standard usage among educational administrators.

At the high school level and below  the terms “students” and “children” are often used interchangeably. On the District of Columbia School District page titled “Supporting Your Student at Home“ has the subtitle “Learn what your children are learning in school and find ways to support them at home.”

By the time a student has reached college age, although parents may still think of them as “my child” or “my kid,” administrators speaking in formal settings are reluctant to use these terms.

One page instructing parents how to understand what their offspring are going through is titled “Talking to Your Student.

Another about “Parenting a College Student” begins with “Supporting Your College Student.”

A page on student loans says that one requirement for applying for one is “Your student completes a FAFSA.”

Now this is really not bizarre usage. It’s clearly an abbreviation of something like “your child who is a student.” If I had a kid who was in Girl Scouts would I object to people in the organization referring to my daughter as “Your Scout”? Probably not. If my son was on the soccer team, would I mind the coach sending out a memo about “your team member.” No.

What’s the difference?

I think my discomfort has something to do with the context. The phrase is most often used as part of the transition from home to college. It can feel jarring.

What are the alternatives? We’ve already eliminated “kids” and “children” as disrespectful of young men and women. “Daughter” and “son” work only when you know the gender of one specific student. “Your student” solves both problems. It works. It’s not going away.

But I would never use it.

While researching the phrase, I ran into a University of Minnesota page about authorizing access to a student record with the subheading “What can I access on my student’s record” and this reminded me of a point few parents of college students really understand.

[We are now leaving the topic of English usage, but you may find this next bit interesting or useful.]

Privacy laws and regulations vary, but it may well be the case that you have no legal right to know what grades your offspring is getting at college or much else relating to his or her academic performance.

I used to do a lot of advising and was responsible for dealing with problems encountered by other teachers in the department. When a student had flunked a class, we would sometimes get an angry phone call from a parent wanting to know why. I had to explain the privacy laws and tell the parent to ask the student to explain. But often the student either lied to hide the truth or refused to answer. Some parents would get extremely indignant and even threaten to sue to get the information.

When this happened, I had the perfect answer: “We can’t legally explain this to you, but ask the child to provide a signed note waiving privacy rights and we will be glad to answer your questions.” That usually ended the confrontation. The student would either refuse to sign a waiver or would collapse and admit the real reason for the F.

I hope you never need this bit of information, but it’s good to keep in mind when reading about a school’s seemingly extreme privacy policy.

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