For years, my son has been an invisible guest in my classroom, keeping an eye on my behavior. My awareness of him has improved my teaching more than any course, book, supervisor, or theory: He has transformed my understanding of what it means to be a teacher and what it means to be an adult.
I started teaching high school when I was 21 years old--when I felt more like an adolescent than an adult. Not knowing much about being an adult for children, I began by pretending I was a teacher, by imitating the two stereotypes of the classroom teacher: the sweet, understanding schoolmarm and the strict, demanding coach. As I remember, I taught my classes as a cross between June Cleaver and a drill sergeant.
When I became a parent, I knew I was irrefutably an adult. I realized that adult responsibility required more than sweetness and discipline: Parenting took energy, flexibility, patience, intimacy, trust, humility, and humor.
And as a parent, I thought about my relationships with students in new ways. I wanted to love them in the way I loved my own child: full of respect for who they are, full of wonder at what it meant to lead--and follow--the next generation.
The basis for good parenting and good teaching, it seems to me, is that the adult wants the child to grow and believes that he can.
One of my major goals is to live so that my son will respect me in the long run, even if we fight today over chores and curfews. In the classroom, I am also looking for students’ respect in the long run.
Students would like gab sessions, easy grades, gimmicky classes, no homework. But I consider it a sign of success when former pupils return years later and say, “You really made us work, but I learned how to write in your class.”
When I feel exhausted and irritated by recalcitrant teenagers, I think to myself, “If this were my son, how would I want him treated?” Sometimes young people just need to be treated kindly. But often the answer is more complex. Perhaps they need adult feedback about their behavior, or they need to be severely reprimanded, or they need to be forgiven and ignored, or allowed to fail, or encouraged to excel. Kindness is seldom enough.
Like parents with their children, teachers give students practice in adulthood. I tell my students that for five hours a week, they will behave like adults, and I will treat them as I would adults.
That simple expectation has ramifications ranging from the trivial to the momentous. On the one hand, my students can generally ignore any infantilizing rules: They may sit where they wish, speak without raising their hands, and visit the bathroom without permission.
On the other hand, they must take responsibility for what happens in the classroom. They must become a community of learners, supporting and respecting one another without regard to ability.
Together we decide assignments, negotiate due dates, and write exams. Students come to class with questions for discussion. When I am absent, I do not hire a substitute; any group of adults could take care of itself for an hour.
But it takes weeks for a class to become a community of learners. On the first day of school, all the students look alike to me. I must consciously look beyond their identical haircuts, T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, and remember that each child comes to me with a complicated lifetime of experiences.
I ask myself, “Who are these people? What’s happening with their family and friends? How have these people been blessed and cursed? How have they triumphed or failed?” And I hope some other teacher is asking the same questions about my son--who is also dressed like all the others, except that he insists on wearing disintegrating shoes and an earring.
I hope his teachers will look for his best qualities, hidden inside his stubborn and gregarious behavior. I hope they will like him, or at the very least, treat him with respect. When I look at my students, I remind myself that in most cases someone loves them with the same intensity with which I love my son. And if no one does love them so greatly, there is even more reason for me to try to act lovingly.
Before my son was born, I tended to make harsh judgments about the parents’ responsibility for students’ problems and often assumed that children were reflections of their parents’ strengths and weaknesses.
But now I know that although parents influence their children, a child’s success or failure in school can’t be traced straight back to the parents. Babies are just born with certain preferences and peculiarities. Most parents are dismayed at how little influence they actually have, and how powerfully the outside environment shapes their children.
I check my plans and expectations for my students against those I hold for my son. When he began receiving homework, I appreciated the teachers who wrote out the directions. And I began giving students my entire curriculum.
His elementary-school principal sent home weekly newsletters; I began sending my syllabus to the parents. His grade-school teachers gave clear instructions about study skills; instead of discussing only the contents of literature, I started working with students on how to read beyond plot.
Occasionally, he would bring home unmanageable homework. I found myself complaining, “Why doesn’t his teacher try her own assignments?” Then I wondered about myself. I began writing more of my assignments with the students.
As my son approached the age of my students, I made more adjustments in my expectations for them. I can see through his facade of worldliness to chasms of ignorance: He seems to know more than he does know. Even when he works hard in school, he has too much time for video games and television. He needs to read more.
Most teachers observe that nothing makes one more demanding and more sympathetic toward young people than teaching students the age of one’s own children. More realistic in their expectations, teachers who are also parents can no longer be conned by faked incompetence or pseudo sophistication.
They realize that much of adolescence is lived beyond the reach of adults, and that even their most benevolent care is limited to what students will allow. Teachers learn to be humble about their influence.
And nothing makes us humbler than trying to parent. Before our children are born, we are full of pious certainties about how exceptional our children will be and what perfect parents we will be. Parents eat a lot of words.
My son is only 14, and already I am gasping from his adolescence. But as a parent and teacher, I remind myself that all teenagers improve in 10 years; most of us adults cringe when we remember ourselves as teenagers. I know that surviving these years will revolutionize my teaching.
This fall, he enrolled as a 9th grader at the high school where I teach. To respect his independence, I decided not to teach freshmen this year. Yet when one of my colleagues asked if I could tolerate having him in my classroom, I thought to myself, “Of course. It makes no difference if he is in my class. He’s been there for years.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1989 edition of Education Week