A new friend of mine recently said, “Were you a teacher? I can tell by the way you talk to your kids.”
I was hoping she was referring to the questions I was asking my three-year-old and not the deep, calm “teacher” voice I use when my kids are in big trouble and I want them to know it! So I pressed a little more.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, you talk to them like you are teaching them something all the time. It’s a compliment,” she added, because I think my face was showing some concern.
Her comment stuck with me and made me think about all the ways the lessons I learned as a teacher have informed my parenting (beyond the “teacher voice” which, I’m telling you, works like a charm).
Here are a few:
Begin with the end in mind
Good teachers know where they want their students to end up. I learned early to write the exam before I began teaching the novel. That way, the class energy was directed and focused on what skills and knowledge the students really needed.
As parents we are playing the long game and that makes the “end” a little fuzzy. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t stop and define where we hope our kids end up. This will help us answer the all important question: Where does my energy need to be? I’ve found it helpful to think long term (e.g. Before they leave my house, my kids need to know…) and short term (e.g. Before they leave the 4th grade I want them to…).
In teaching, it’s a combination of being realistic about what kids will learn and being optimistic about all the things kids can learn. Parenting requires both of these in equal measure, too. And sitting down and thinking–often–about the end helps us develop both a realistic goal and an optimistic plan for getting them there.
Enthusiasm is contagious
One of my favorite books of all time is The Great Gatsby. But, go ahead, try to teach that symbolic tale of the roaring 1920’s to a roomful of seventeen-year-olds. (And no, I don’t mean the sexy new movie starring Leonardo. I mean the book one, with layered symbolism and dislikable characters.) It is a tough sell.
So you can imagine one of my proudest moments was when one of the jock wrestlers in my class said, “This is an awesome book. It is, like, just like life. Fitzgerald is a genius!”
No offense to Mr. Fitzgerald, but this student did not get there with the book alone. It was through my daily, genuine excitement of sharing this masterfully told story with the class. I never once tried to play it “cool.”
With my kids, I try to be life’s cheerleader. I mean in a, “This is a wonderful, interesting world, and I get to show it to you,” kind of way. Most of the time, that’s easy because kids are generally pretty dang excited and curious. All you have to do is follow their lead. But some of the time, it’s not easy. I try to remind myself to be upbeat and curious about life, to take the time to turn over the literal and metaphorical stones of life and find out what’s underneath. When we look, there is always something squiggly and unexpectedly wonderful to see.
Learning is an uncomfortable, often repetitive, process that requires a lot of work
This one might seem to contradict the one before it. How do you keep up that enthusiasm when you know that learning something new is hard?
In the classroom there was no getting around it, reading The Great Gatsby is hard work. And we would reread and examine difficult passages several times. It was challenging, but here is the message I had to give loud and clear: This process takes time. I know you can do this, and I’m going to help you get there.
In education we call that help “scaffolding”–just like the temporary structures people make when they are constructing a building. It’s support that is gradually taken away. It’s enabling and empowering.
You do this already. It’s the step stool that helps your child reach the sink so they can wash their own hands. It’s a chore chart that helps your kids remember how they can help around the house. It’s tricky, though. How do you scaffold so your kids can build their own lives? Is it time to take some scaffolding away? Or, with a little more support, would your kids be able to rise to a challenge?
Growing up is hard. There is no getting around it. Take learning to get dressed, for example. It involves some frustration, some tedious moments with buttons and zippers. But, in the end, you know your child is going to get it. Now multiply this feeling for things like learning fractions or how to make friends. I try to keep that optimistic mindset with all the things my kids need to learn. It will be hard, there will be some tears, it will take several attempts, but they will get it. Instead of cutting the process short, I’m should be trying to scaffold them to success.
Nothing teaches like a model
When I’m trying to teach my students how to write a poem, we read a lot of poetry. Why? Because most of the important things in life cannot be explained; they have to be shown. This ranges from loving relationships to cleaning windows. You just gotta show kids how to do it.
Why don’t we make this more transparent for our kids? It’s surprising the number of times I’ve expected my kids to just know how to do something. Or I’ve thought that it’s “better” for them to come up with a solution on their own. But I wouldn’t be silent around my baby and then expect them to figure out how to talk. So why would I expect my kids to magically figure out how to get along with each other? I have to model patience and taking turns and turning the other cheek. And I have to point out that I’m modelling that behavior and this is what it looks like. By talking about a model, I can make the invisible qualities I want them to have more visible.
Kids like to feel useful, no really–useful
This is one of the first lessons I learned as a teacher. It was my first year and I was young and fun, and most of the kids responded to my enthusiasm. But not all of them. There was one girl who really, really didn’t like me. Her name was Gina. I didn’t know what to do. She didn’t like jokes. She didn’t like personal attention. Nothing was getting her into the class. I didn’t need her to like me (although as a 22-year-old first year teacher, I really, really wanted her to!) but I knew that if she hated me, she would dismiss American Literature that year. I didn’t want that to happen.
One day I ran into her in the hall, and I was carrying a bunch of books. She looked at me like I was an idiot, and I said, “Oh, Gina, I’m glad I ran into you. Could you help me carry this giant stack of books? I’ll never make it to class in time. I would really, really appreciate it.”
All the way to class I thanked her and told her that she was a gem. By the time we got to class, I’m not joking, it was if a light switch had flipped inside this girl. She smiled. She took her seat. She was happy to have helped.
I learned that real power comes from a feeling useful and competent. Sometimes we treat our little people like little royalty. We serve them because we love them. But do we give them clear ways to serve us? Why hog all the good feeling of serving the ones you love?
For example, I could make them breakfast (look how much I love you!), tell them to make their own breakfast (look how independent you are!) or invite them to make me breakfast (look how much you contribute to our family!). I think kids need a little of each feeling, don’t you?
Back up your hunch with some data
For a teacher there are many measures of success, but the one that gets the most attention is test scores. Although I think there are other very important ways to judge success, I value objective test scores very much. I can think that my students really understood something, but until they can explain it back to me, how can I know for sure? You have to have something concrete to back up your hunch.
In parenting we need to do the same thing. We’ve said we want to spend time as a family so, objectively, are we doing that? Where is our evidence? What hours do we spend together? I want my kids to know I love them, but what data am I giving them? Do I tell them? Do I spend time with them? Do I tuck them in at night? I want to train myself to back up each parenting hunch with some data.
Self-assessment is more powerful than correction
This one took awhile for me to learn. I found myself constantly telling my class to sit down and be quiet, stay on task, do their work. Then I went to a workshop on self-assessment, and they suggested giving a little card to each student with a 1 to 5 on it. Periodically I would ask them to circle how well they were staying on task. I didn’t collect it. This was just for them to see for themselves.
It worked surprisingly well. The kids who were doing what they were supposed to felt validated. The kids who were not felt the little panic of a low score. Sure, some kids lied or honestly didn’t know what “staying on task” looked like, but then our conversation became more about what it meant to control yourself and strategies to do that instead of me yelling in frustration.
This one is easy to apply to parenting. Instead of telling kids their room isn’t done, ask them to come and get you when it’s ready to be inspected. Instead of telling them which letter “e” you think they wrote nicely, ask them to point out their best one and tell you why. Instead of telling them you think they need to work harder at getting along with their brother, ask for the relationship high and low point of the day.
I’ve found I need to be careful with this one as it can quickly become passive-aggressive and turn into a sarcastic, teeth gritting “What are you supposed to be doing right now?!” Instead, I try to keep myself emotionally on the sidelines. In this life they need to learn how to clean a toilet, and I’m here to help them to learn that, not feel personally attacked if they don’t do it.
Don’t take it personally–be the adult
When you teach teenagers, you learn to have a tough skin quickly. Teenagers have a lot going on beneath the surface. Worrying about friends, the future, their family, their next meal, living up to expectations, trying new things, being cool, being attractive, hormones, sleep deprivation–everything gets thrown into a big simmering pot that lurks right below their consciousness. Their 4th period teacher and Fitzgerald’s use of a symbolic green light barely registers. And that’s ok. As a teacher I knew that the only person who was going to change was me. So if something wasn’t working, I had to try something new. In fact, that’s what I loved about teaching–the constant tweaking of technique.
And, truthfully, I love that about being a mom, too. My kids, literally, don’t know how to be anything but the way they are. So it’s up to me to try new things, different approaches, and really work hard at reaching them wherever they are. I’m the adult. I can do that.
4th period deserves a nice teacher even if 2nd period was terrible
Teaching is essentially acting. If things go terribly in one class, you have five minutes to wipe that frustration off your face and start fresh with a new group of kids. That’s not easy to do.
Parenting is the same. I’m so glad my kids have a limited memory. They forgive and love me seconds after I have yelled at them. They don’t hold a grudge and give me the cold shoulder because I lost it. How can I not do the same? If my son poops in his pants, I have to put on his big boy underwear and believe that this time, yes, this time it will work.
Because, in a family, every day, every moment is new–a new chance to optimistically try again, genuinely love harder, and press forward believing in the ones you love and in the life you are building together.
You don’t have to be trained teacher to do that. You just have to be a mom. Which you are.
QUESTION: Is it helpful to view your role as a mother as if it were a teaching position? Why or why not?
CHALLENGE: Try implementing one of Amanda’s techniques this week. If you’re confronting one particularly challenging situation, step back and try to approach it as if you were a teacher.
To hear more on this topic, listen to Amanda and Saren discuss these ideas on Power of Moms Radio!
Edited by Alisha Gale and Sarah Monson
Image from Shutterstock/Graphics by Julie Finlayson.