Letters From A Teacher Part 1 (Aligning Our Beliefs With Our Behaviors)
I have been formulating these letters in my mind for some time now. It is a conversation I wanted to have with parents when I was a teacher. There were always some parents I would risk having this conversation with, and many, for whatever reason I did not. Perhaps it was because it’s hard to know where to start, and it’s difficult to sum up in a few short sentences. Writing this is something I really want to do well because it’s the kind of conversation we don’t have often and because I feel passionate about it. Even if it feels like a personal attack, try to stay with me till the end, then by all means email me if you feel the need. I haven’t time for political correctness. With so many people in pain, I think it’s time for plain talk. I write this out of love for every parent.
When I was a child I never remember my mother, complaining about my grades or showing unusual excitement when I achieved an “A”, but I do remember very well her concern about my behaviour and attitude in general. My mother was not a teacher. My mother was a beautician or hairdresser if you prefer. My mother’s older sister was very good at math and she was made to understand at a very young age that much was expected of her. I understand that she did not have to wash dishes or do many household chores. Her job was to study and make her family proud. I can only imagine how the other siblings felt about that.
I was one of two siblings. I had a an older brother who certainly struggled in school more than I. My mother didn’t compare us much, but others did, unfortunately, even teachers. They didn’t intend to be cruel or do injury,but when you ask the younger child in the presence of the older child the answer to a question which the older child could not answer, that is tantamount to saying “Geez Bobby, even Julie knows the answer to that and she is two years younger than you !” What in the world have we just done !? Bobby just got humiliated, and now he hates Julie because who else can he turn his humiliation towards? Julie had a moment of feeling great but it came at the expense of her relationship with her brother, which she might not fully understand till years later. When your younger child pipes up with the answer to a question which has been put to the older child, do not entertain the answer. Clearly let them know that their answering is inappropriate. “Be quiet,I am not speaking to you”. This respects the older child’s integrity, halts the younger child from scoring points at the expense of her sibbling. In other words, showing him up, and using the opportunity to flaunt his knowledge. I remember my mother saying “when I am speaking to your brother, you be quiet”. She was teaching me bounderies and whether I knew it or not, she was teaching me not to use my information or my knowledge as a weapon. We have telephone conversations in their hearing, which probably would be better served well away from them. As we know, children have excellent hearing, especially when we talk softly about things which don’t concern them. Old folks used to tell us to leave the room, “this conversation is not for you”. This was wise direction. Not all conversations are appropriate for their hearing, even when they are the subject under discussion. With the abundant use of cell phones, parents need to ensure that conversations being overheard by children are appropriate, but that’s another letter. In any event there were times I did overhear, not lots of times, but enough to remember. Being compared to a sibling was an odd thing, sometimes it made me feel superior, sometimes it made me feel very very guilty and sad for him.
I have one child. I have felt advantaged by being a teacher. Although not all teachers have success in the rearing of their children, teachers do have an advantage over most parents because of their training.
What is Worthy of Praise?
Being the first child in the class to learn to read is not worthy of praise. Being engrossed and excited about reading is worthy of praise. Emphasis is better served commenting on what Julie is finding joy in reading, rather than the fact that she was first to read. One implies a kind of superiority. You will come to want more and more of it. You desire to set her apart from her peers by virtue of her development. It says “see how smart she is?!” The other acknowledges her readiness. It is focused on giving her material appropriate to her ability and interest. In other words, one behaviour is about pumping yourself up as the parent of a smart child, and one is about putting the focus on learning. Your child would never think to brag that she was the first to do anything. We make them aware and add that element. Do you see? What we want to celebrate is the child’s discovery as she learns what she is good at. We in effect take her to a door of learning and coo about all that yummy stuff just waiting for her there. What we do not want to do is send a message of needing to be better than someone else.
Parents promise rewards to JD if he can turn his “B” into an “A”. This behaviour is intended to be an incentive. It’s supposed to inspire JD to do better. But what long term message does it send? Believe it or not, the goal is not to produce “A” students. The goal is to grow people who value learning and creating for it’s own sake because the act of learning enriches one’s life. That is the goal. Education is not a race to be won. Learning is not a burden to be borne. Neither should it be a process you cannot wait to end, i.e. ” I can’t wait to get out of school”. Throughout our children’s formative years we are providing nourishment for their spiritual, pychological and social growth. Our role as parent is far more comprehensive than that of teacher.
A teacher’s job is limited in its focus, therefore she speaks of stanines, grades and whether or not Julie is “at grade level”. Do all children walk at ten months? Do they all learn to speak at the same age? Yes, teachers can help you by offering information, but it is the responsibility of the parent to take that information and weigh it. We must make sense out of it and put it into a context. JD may not be reading at grade level, but have you been monitoring him? Was he really into that book about dinosaurs? Was he able to understand how those animals behaved. Is he excited when he tells you how much food they ate? Through dinosaurs you can teach him about the whole world, but it requires a change of life-style for you and your family. And, you know what, he doesn’t know he’s learning, or that you are teaching. In other words it’s not boring empty talk. It becomes the converstion at dinner (with the television and cell phone turned off). He is learning, he is engaged. You are having child-appropriate conversations. He is giving you back information attesting to how much he understands and remembers. Don’t cheat on this time with the television on even if it is on mute.
The teacher cannot work like this. She has a syllabus to cover, but you have a child to grow. We teach through our excitement. Share something you just learned, it can be something very small. Gradually you will see the quality of family- time change. Stop racing to get your children out of your way so that you are free to text someone.That hour or hour and a half between dinner and bed is the most valuable time of your day. A parent’s job is huge. We cannot make more time, but we can spend our time more meaningfully. We must understand our child at a deeper level. We have to balance how we want him to grow, and we cannot do that unless we think about it. If his school is overly competitive we have to create the balance in our parenting at home, not blindly buy into what is being pushed exhaustively at school. If school does not challenge him enough, we must. He is ours, and the responsibility for him cannot be laid at the feet of anyone else. There is no point to looking for anyone else to blame for how he/she is “turning out”. It’s time to begin looking and asking “What can I do better?” No matter how much money we are prepared to spend, we cannot suppose that the answer is just to put him in the right school. It’s not as simple as that.
We cannot enter the world of parenting unwiling to change. Our children mirror every thing they see, everything they hear, everything we imply through our attitudes. They are a witness to it all, which was why my mother and I were both sticklers about early bedtimes. Lord yes ! Put in the necessary time and but those darlings to bed early.
I wish there was a way to speak about some of these issues without causing you to feel defensive, but the truth is that this stuff goes so deep that it’s unavoidable. Our children are not a thing to be shown off. It is unwise to try to make them live the life you did not. We cannot live through them in that way.To use them to make us feel good is dangerous. Why? Because while the child is serving our purpose, we cannot be objective enough to see what his needs are. Do you know how many of us entered into professions which we didn’t want trying to make Dad proud?
Michael loves running,so we encourage him to join the Pacers. That’s fine, but when we say Johnny has won six of his last seven races and if he hadn’t stumbled he would have won them all, the message to Johnny is “you feel great about me because I win.” Then comes I have to win my races, which may later be followed by “I don’t like running anymore. I only like to do what I am the good at. ” (more in the another newsletter) lol Where do these attitudes come from? We all have them and we owe it to ourselves to take an earnest look at them and decide if we should keep them or dump them. We say to children don’t steal or take what isn’t yours, but we come out of the grocery store, sit in the car and exclaim that the check-out boy gave you too much change. Your child asks you if you are going to take it back. You laugh as you drive off, “Not today” you say.
I know I had a lot of days when I felt that having a child was very confining. I wanted to watch a certain television show which was not appropriate for her, or I’m there sitting with a friend who tells an off coloured joke in the presence of my child…..how do I handle it? Do I talk to my friend about it or am I so skewed in my priorities, that I continue to expose my child rather than have that uncomfortable conversation with my friend. It’s like being on the stage all the time.
All of us need plain talking, clear thinking people in our lives. They help us to put things in perspective. Parenting is not so much about finding the right course and sticking to it as much as it is about having a good compass and being willing to constantly adjust. It’s about realising that our children benefit from the work we are willing to do on ourselves.