Other People's Kids

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I've learned to see my students from the dual perspective of a parent and a teacher. When I went to my first parent-teacher conference for my daughter, Betsy, who was in kindergarten, her teacher, Mrs. Martel, told me that she had been anxious to meet Betsy's parents. Since Betsy had trouble admitting her mistakes, her teacher wondered what kind of pressure we put on Betsy at home. Embarrassed, but hardly incredulous, I explained that we, too, worried about her fear of making errors. But Betsy had a much older sibling at home who jumped on every silly thing she said or did. And her dad and I didn't always set a good example: We practically threw tantrums when we erred. How could Betsy believe our assurances that it was OK to make mistakes?

The next day, Mrs. Martel deliberately made a mistake in front of Betsy, who came home crowing, "Mrs. Martel made a mistake today.'' Then, she sobered. "But it's OK. Everyone makes mistakes.'' My husband and I gushed with gratitude, and I learned a thing or two: Parents are often as troubled as the teacher about their kids' problems; and though the parents might be feeding a problem, they probably are working to correct it, as well.

Being a parent has also changed my attitude about teaching different kinds of kids. I used to avoid teaching the highpowered freshmen at my school. According to rumor, these kids were gradegrubbing, teacher-challenging elitists. I left them to the tougher teachers who loved to disabuse them of their notions of superiority. But when Rob became a freshman and signed up for his courses, I realized he would be taking his school's equivalent of my school's Responding to Literature, the top elective. He wasn't a grade grubber or an elitist; he was scared, certain he wasn't very smart.

I wanted my son to have a teacher who would challenge him to see how smart he was, not convince him he was inadequate. The superstition I've developed as a parent who teaches kicked in: If I treat my students with care and decency, my children's teachers will do the same for them. So I signed up to teach the top students, determined to reassure them the way I wanted Rob's teacher to reassure him. In the process, I had some of my all-time favorite classes.

As Rob moved ahead in high school, I learned another lesson: High school students are simply high school students, not underage college kids. Like many inexperienced high school teachers, I'd been teaching literature by trying to reproduce my favorite college classes. Having a child in high school brought me and my embarrassingly unrealistic expectations back to earth. My son also helped me discover a side of my students I would have otherwise missed. Preparing for a 9th grade oral report on Greek mythology, Rob took a Tupperware bowl from the kitchen, covered it with aluminum foil, and wore it as a helmet. I was astonished. He was a jock. He worked at being "cool.'' Yet he was willing to put a foil-covered bowl on his head in public. The next year, I required my freshmen to devise and dress up in Shakespearian costumes and perform scenes from Twelfth Night. Boys arrived in tights and bloomers and recited lines from memory. They loved the project.

Some of what I've learned hasn't been as uplifting. When Betsy was in 5th grade, several former friends, led by one particularly powerful and troubled girl, ganged up on her. They would tease her and even threaten to hit her if she didn't kneel in front of them and kiss their feet. Each night, she cried herself to sleep, only to wake up later screaming. She asked me to pick her up from school and walk her from the classroom door to the car so she'd feel protected. One day, she was so exhausted from the abuse that she fell asleep during the five-minute drive home.

Frantic, my husband and I turned to the school for help. We asked the principal to at least make sure the recess aides stopped the girls from threatening Betsy. But the principal told us that we were overreacting, denied that Betsy was being brutalized, and did nothing. Somehow, Betsy got through the year. Now, five years later, she has bounced back and certainly doesn't seem permanently scarred. But I'll never get over the school's refusal to listen to our plea for help.

Betsy's ordeal put me permanently on the lookout for the socially downtrodden at my school. I scored one for Betsy last fall when I spotted a big, tough kid picking on a smaller kid and intervened.

Finally, being a parent has sharpened my "crap detector.'' One night, Rob came up to me while I was writing a lesson plan and asked what I was preparing. I told him I was planning to put the kids in groups to discuss "opinion questions.'' It was the beginning of the school year, and the exercise was to be a community builder. The point was not to get the students to arrive at right answers but to help them get to know each other. When I told Rob my plan, he hooted. "Mom, don't do that. Everyone knows that teachers have kids talk about things like that in groups when they can't think of anything else to do for the period.'' I rethought the lesson.

Through Betsy, I learned something similar. I used to be afraid that repetitive writing assignments would bore my students, so I made sure each one had a different twist. Then, I noticed that Betsy's teacher had her follow the same writing format for every paper she did for 10 weeks straight. The constant repetition enabled her to grasp the process required for the job. Suddenly, I realized that each new twist I assigned introduced a new expectation. As a result, my students rarely got the opportunity to feel a sense of mastery. I'm more predictable now, but at least I'm giving my students a chance to feel competent.

I began teaching when I was 22 years old, not much older than my students. Back then, I wondered what I'd do when I could no longer trade on the "neat, young teacher'' image. Being a parent has helped me slip naturally into the next phase. In my best moments, I treat my students the way I would want teachers to treat my kids. This works well. My students tell me things they'd never talk about at home, and they listen to things from me that they'd never tolerate from their parents. I have also come to afford their parents the benefit of the doubt: I assume they love their children as much as I love my children.

As my own kids get older, I wonder what kind of teacher I'll be when both are out of school and have children of their own. The thought of being a grandmother just makes me feel old. But then, maybe a teaching grandmother has some great lessons to learn, as well. I hope so.

Vol. 02, Issue 09, Page 1-24

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