“I’m just a glorified babysitter.”
“Parents want us to raise their kids for them, but the way they want without needing to do any of the work!”
“I’m not their parent, they should be learning this at home.”
“You hit some, you miss some.”
“You can’t reach everyone; they’re only with you a few hours a day.”
“They see you more than the see their parents at home during the week.”
“I’m not a daycare, but all they want to do is sleep, eat, and sit there doing nothing!”
Our comments are so contradictory.
I have both heard these comments many times from other teachers, as well as spoken them myself out of frustration and bitterness. In teacher’s college, one of the first things I was taught was how students often see their teachers at school for a longer, more consistent period of time in a day then what they see their own parents. This may or may not be the fault of the parent; some are certainly neglectful and dismissive of their children, but many others are simply trying to get by and ensure a roof remains over their child’s head and food remains on the table. An aspect that was driven home again and again by my instructor was how we, as teachers, need to accept that we are often the second parent-set in a child and teen’s life.
At the end of even my most frustrating day, deep down through the tears I know that as I teacher I fulfill a parental-role for my students, younger and older, whether I want to or not. That part of the lesson has always been overwhelmingly clear for me, even before I began teaching. My volunteer work with City Kidz in my University years, even my experiences as a teen while in Army Cadets, made me vividly aware of this. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into for this department.
At the same time, however, as teachers we are not permitted to show the same affections you would normally be able to as parents; we cannot hug our students, cannot text or facebook them notes of encouragement, are severely restricted in methods and approaches of correction and discipline. Success as a teacher is often viewed by parents and administration in terms of high test scores and grades, rather than by skill development or changes in behavior. Catchphrases and trends in education swing from draconian to passive, from confusing, almost wild artistic and self expression, to uncompromising conformity and strict standardization.
Most of us enter the teaching profession because we love children and youth. We love showing them new skills, teaching them new things, preparing them for the future; we become teachers because at our hearts we wish HELP their parents guide them on the path to the future. But when full parenthood of another person’s child thrust upon us without care or warning, when it is expected of us, things can quickly become overwhelming. When children and youth have no concept of how to speak to others simply because they are only spoken to in mostly one manner at home and among their friends, when they do not know how to resolve conflict or solve problems without lashing out or shutting down, or when entitlement has been encouraged and taught instead of advocacy, the desire that drove us to become teachers in the first place runs the risk of being turned into bitterness and indifference. When students come to us over and over again without basic social or communication skills, when they demonstrate little desire or interest in learning these vital skills, and when we know they will be going back home at the end of the day to an environment that largely does not care or does not have time to encourage the development of these skills, it is enough to drive even the most dedicated teacher to consider other career options.
One thing that we often forget as teachers while we are being overwhelmed, and that older parents have already learned, is that often the seed you plant takes many years to bring forth fruit, and is tended by many other people down the road. In our role as a second parent-set, we as teachers become part of a child or youth’s inner voice as much as their own parent or guardian’s voice does.
A child is too big for our voice to miss. Even among the myriad of voices being bombarded at them, our voice is a part of it. Our influence, for better or for worse, is far too big in a child’s life not to hit and manifest somewhere. Whether it manifest in words of disappointment and degradation that simply join the other voices they hear throughout the day telling them how much of a screw-up they are, or whether they stand out against those voices as a word of encouragement despite the failure. When we tell them to do better, are they hearing us saying they are not good enough which is why they need to do better, or that they need to do better because we believe they can?
Part of this paradox lay in how our students internalize what we say, based on the relationship they have with us. Have they associated us with positive parental figures or negative ones? Has a relationship of safety and encouragement been built with them, or simply one of authority and expectations? Do they see us the jail-warden parent-figure, only seeking to make them act the way we want them to, trying to exert control over them and break them down to be what we want them to be? Are we the indifferent parent who doesn’t care, who only wants to ‘do their job’ because we are so busy and overwhelmed with everything else? Are we the parent who is quick-tempered or jumps to conclusions without first considering all sides and motivations? Are we the parent who is more concerned about being well-liked, being ‘cool’ then being a true parent with clear boundaries and fair but deserved consequences for choices made?
Of course, not being a parent myself, and being a (very) new teacher of only two years, I don’t have a clue what my parent-teaching style is yet. I am still in the process of developing it, and to be honest, I am often all over the place. I am lucky; I have 17 day students and 9 night students, giving me a better opportunity to think over and reflect on these aspects of my career. If I had begun teaching in a school of 34-39 students per class, 3 different classes per day, 6 different classes per school year, I would likely be so overwhelmed I would not have time or energy to consider this, even though it would still be true. And even though I can be reprimanded, even reported to the Ontario College of Teachers for “unprofessionalism” I still refer to my students, younger and older, as “my kids” and “my students” instead of “the kids” and “the class.” My students know that I value them, and even though they are infuriating sometimes, exhausting most of the time, they know I have taken a parental-like responsibility for and with them. How do I know they are aware of this, even in some small degree? When I use the term “the student” or “the class” and students overhear me, they ask why I am mad, what happened to make me upset. They want to know why I am feeling like there is no relationship there, why I feel the need to distance myself from them.
I was actually quite shocked when I first realized this, since it isn’t as apparent with the older students in secondary grades. I thought perhaps I was seeing something that wasn’t there. So I kept watch and did a little improvised experiment; the more often I used “distanced terminology” such as “the class” and “the students” the more negative and disengaged behaviours occurred in both my grade 7 AND my grade 12 class. Student success dropped for those two weeks, attendance dropped, engagement decrease, defiance and power-struggles began to emerge where there wasn’t any; I even had one student comment how I was starting to act like her parent at home (which for this student is a very negative thing).
Much of this comes back to a previous blog I wrote, questioning where to draw the line and realize you have done all you can do, and accept you cannot reach everyone. But my students, OUR children, are too big to miss! It’s not a question of whether they are too big to hit them all, because the fact of the matter is we DO hit them all. The question is HOW we are hitting them, HOW they are remembering us hitting them, and what type of fruit comes from it later down the road. With teaching we do not always reap what we sow. Sometimes we do not even see the sprout of what we have sown, and sometimes we reap what others have sown before us. Sometimes all we can do is water a seed that has gone for a long time without being fed, and sometimes we need to irrigate the soil because the seed has been drown with too much water. And sometimes we might need to sow the seed all over again because the previous seeds have been neglected for so long.
Everything in life is a choice; what clothes we wear, what food we eat, when we go to bed, whether to finish our work or leave it to pursue something more pleasant. Even when bad things happen to us that are out of our control, we still have a choice on how we are going to react to what happened, and how we are going to allow what happened to impact us later in life. When I encounter students, it is my choice how I interact with my students and, likewise, how my students interact with me. It is my choice on how I establish what is appropriate and inappropriate, where I set the boundaries, and how I react to what my students say and do. And let me say, I do not always make good choices about my reactions to my students; often I allow my emotions to overrule what wisdom and Love are trying to tell me. But I do choose to apologize to my students, and I choose to have class discussions on why my reaction and behaviour was not appropriate. Even though the method is different depending on the grade, the idea is still the same; letting the students know that I am human, that the choices I made were not right, and what I could do differently next time to learn from it. It sounds lame, common-sense even, yet the impact is so profound on the students of all ages I have taught this far, that I can’t help but wonder what else can be done that is “too big to miss”? What else is being said or done that is hitting the students, no matter how “lame” or “boring” or “dumb” it may first appear, and what ISN’T being said or done that should be? What else has a “too big to hit” mentality when really, I should be thinking it’s “too big to miss”?