Before my second child was born, my doctor asked me if I thought being a teacher had made me a better parent or if being a parent had made me a better teacher. It was an interesting question, and my response was both.
As a teacher, I have seen every imaginable parenting style, and I’ve watched thousands of parent-child interactions. I remember calling a parent about his child swearing and hearing, “I don’t know where the h##& he got that from!” One student would constantly ask me something over and over, even though I had said no. When I asked him why, he told me that when he did that at home, his mom would get tired of it and let him have his way. I’ve had parents who believed everything their children told them, even when it was irrational, like the student who told his mom I taught him math differently than I taught everyone else in the room.
There are lots of positives as well. I think of a young man who said he wanted to be a football player OR a lawyer. When I asked him why both. his answer was profound. “My mom said you need more than one dream because not all of them come true.” What a smart mom; not crushing the dream of a sports career but planting the seed that you must have a back-up plan. There are the parents who let their kids take responsibility for their actions, even when it would be easy to step in and make everything better. There was the student who asked his friends to donate to a charity rather than buy him birthday presents; his parents modeled the spirit of giving. I remember the parents who sat side by side in conferences and at programs, even though they were divorced. They put their child’s well-being ahead of their differences.
Almost every interaction with my children triggers a student-parent memory. When I’m tired and about to give in, that naughty kid flits through my mind, and I stand my ground. When my daughter tells me about something that happened at school I get more information from her before I make the decision to call her teacher. Most of the time a few more questions clears everything up, and there is no need to call. I often make choices based on what I have seen modeled. Does that mean I always make the best choices? No, but I think I make good ones most of the time.
So how did being a parent make me a better teacher?
I had taught for thirteen years when my daughter was born, and by all accounts, I was a very effective teacher. I had high expectations, held students accountable, built relationships with families, and was very involved within my school and district. The one thing missing? I had no experience as a parent. When I talked with parents about their child, I was looking at it purely from an educator’s perspective. Oh, I made sure to point out the positives as well as the areas of concern, but I had no idea of the emotional bond between parent and child that turned my words into personal triumph or failure for parents. I hadn’t ever experienced that little tug on the heartstrings when someone praised or criticized my child.
After my daughter was born, I found myself addressing concerns a little more gently, inserting positives as much as possible, offering suggestions, and inserting more positives. I made a more conscious effort to reach out to parents who seemed to be uninterested in school, and I found that most of them just didn’t know how to interact with school or were too busy trying to provide for their families to show up for PTA programs or class presentations.
When my daughter started school, it was odd sitting on the other side of the table at orientations, screenings, programs, and conferences. I found myself scrutinizing the assignments I sent home, making sure directions were clear for parents because some things came home with my daughter that I wouldn’t have understood without a teaching background. Last year she was asked to dress up for a pioneer school and then again for Laura Ingalls Wilder day. Now, I had a pioneer skirt, apron, and bonnet from my pioneer unit she used. I borrowed a period appropriate shirt from the drama department at my school, and I stopped at St. Vincent DePaul for a pair of cheap, old-fashioned shoes. Then I wondered, how were other parents supposed to come up with this stuff without going out and spending lots of money?
I also started re-assessing how much work I expected students complete outside of the school day. I hadn’t realized how much family time was eaten up by mindless assignments, given just for the sake of giving homework. I still gave homework, but I extended deadlines, included very specific directions, and made sure it was meaningful work. I also started realizing that sometimes students really ‘didn’t have time’ to get something done. Have I changed my expectations or lower the bar? Absolutely not; I just look at everything from a second perspective, and I make decisions with that in mind.
Parenting, like teaching, is not an exact science. Children aren’t data points, and even the most mundane thing can be come an adventure. You have to be able to roll with the punches. Every day is a new adventure, and I feel blessed to have the experience of teaching to help me parent and the experience of parenting to help me teach.