I used to teach high school Social Studies. In the beginning, I wasn’t very good. I was a nervous, conciliatory and assumed all my students would be mostly like me (rule-following nerds).
Luckily, the learning curve in teaching, like parenting, is steep. You can’t really know what teaching is like until you’re standing face-to-faces, all 25 of them staring at you for direction. Just like you can’t really know what it’s like to be a parent until you’re home alone with a new delicate life.
I grew into teaching the way some uncoordinated, gangly kids grow into basketball — not quite a natural, but with practice I got good.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my teaching career was preparing me for parenting more than any other career could have. Teaching, like parenting, is a career that almost anyone can benefit from, quietly imparting lessons nearly everyday. There is always something to learn and always room for improvement.
These lessons I learned from teaching help me most often as a parent.
- Always have a Plan B. (And C and a back-up for your back-up, you know, in case of armageddon.) Want to know what it’s like when the “game” you created to simulate the French Revolution falls flat after 10 minutes and you still have 45 more minutes to go until the bell rings? It’s kind of like planning to take the long way to Target so the baby falls asleep in the car and you can spend the $200 you hadn’t planned to in peace. However, after taking the long, long way, the baby is still wide awake. You head inside anyway and immediately regret it as the baby starts wailing because he’s finally tired. You can never have too many plans. Never. Ever.
- It’s okay to measure kids against each other, but the most important skills can’t be evaluated by a standardized test. Everyone wants to be evaluated according to their own merits. But too often, the only way to measure and evaluate so-called normal development is to compare to, and measure against, one’s peers. Is he reading as well as the others? Is he fast enough? Can he compete with the others? The reality is that achievement is almost always valued higher than improvement. You don’t get to play major league baseball because you improved your skills over time. But success is as much about improvement as it is about achievement. Whether he’s at the head of his class or the last to learn to read, no standardized test or measure can evaluate his strength of character. Does he continue to try? Is he kind? Does he know his self-worth? Let these be the questions that worry you.
- Kids need rules and firm boundaries. This is a hard one for me. I’m more of a loosey-goosey, “Okay, one more story before bed” kind of mom — just as I was a, “Sure, you can have one more day to study for the test” kind of teacher. I suffer from “what’s the harm in the long run” kind of thinking. The Type-B’s among us call it laid back, the Type A’s call us push-overs. But students, like your children, are so much easier to deal with when they know what it expected, consistently and always.
- But not too firm. I struggle here too because there are always exceptions. I once assigned a paper, and because I feared I was developing a reputation as a loosey-goosey push-over, I made a big to-do about “no exceptions” on the due date. The students had advanced warning when the paper was due. Even if they were sick, they could email it to me. We all agreed. The day the paper was due, one student came into my classroom in tears. She didn’t have her paper. Her only excuse: she had a lot of work in other classes and was feeling stressed. I had to take a stand. I later learned the week the paper was due, she found out her Mom was sick. Sometimes kids push because they know they can. Sometimes they push because they actually need to you to give a little. Ask yourself: what is the point I’m trying to prove? How you answer will give you clarity on what to do.
- There are many people who will influence your child, but never underestimate how much influence you have. As a teacher, I saw my students for 48 minutes, five days a week. This is simultaneously a lot of time and not a lot of time. Just when you think you have little to no impact on their lives, they’ll surprise you by remembering something you said in passing. As a parent, I know the weight of my words will gradually decrease as friends, teachers, coaches and others begin to form relationships with my kids. And then I start talking like my mom and I’m reminded of the influence parents still have. There is a lot of noise you need to talk over and drown out. Choose your words carefully and be sure to say what needs to be said because you’ll always have clout.
- Get to know your kids — really know them. The questions you ask are always more important than the answers you give. Spend more time listening than talking.
- But there is a fine line between being a relatable and friendly teacher and being a friend. It’s as fine as the line between parent and friend. I’ve seen it done successfully (among both parents and teachers) but the friendships have always been a by-product of excellent teaching/parenting.
- The longer you do it, the better you get (if you keep trying). You never feel like an expert. There is always something else you need to work on. If you’re doing it well, you’ll always wonder, “Did I do enough? What could I have done differently to have been better?”
- It’s okay to let your kids fail. Despite what some politicians would have you believe, very few academic failures are a result of poor teaching. Despite what you may tell yourself about supposedly protecting your child from failure, you’re only exposing them to a false sense of security. Don’t stop your child from failing out of fear of how it will make you, as the parent, look. The way to judge a bad teacher/parent is not whether the student/child fails but whether or not they give them the support, confidence and encouragement to try again until they succeed.
- Don’t take too much advice to heart. Know your strengths and play to them. But mostly, be sure they know how much you care.