“Would I want my own child to be a student in my classroom?”
As educators reflect on our practice and commit to improve our craft, no question makes professional development more personal. What we deem acceptable for ourselves and our learners takes on a new meaning with our child’s best interest at stake. Without question, compassion, empathy, and respect become priorities in the classroom.
As a parent, I begin to consider the diverse needs and interests of my two children. A sudden panic hits as my thoughts shift to my impact as a teacher. What kind of experience do I provide in my classroom? How do I make each child feel important while challenging them at their appropriate level? Do I treat everyone fairly? Communicate clearly? Will I inspire or stifle their learning? Do I provide clear feedback and prepare students for the next level? Will they resent the workload or fear my assessment practices? What would my child’s peers say about me?
There is no faking it. My child will know exactly what I do and who I am as a professional. He will know if I am an effective educator. I want to watch him learn, support his productive struggles, witness his growth, share the experience. Will my son still look at me with wonder and awe, pride and respect?
Such a scenario is laden with pressure. There is obvious pressure on the teacher-parent, but potentially more pressure on the student. The expectations of a teacher’s child are already high. Every action and interaction is judged. Any success may indicate preference or favoritism. Peers (and their parents) will talk. “Of course you know the answers. You can get away with anything. You can always get extra help. You better get an A.” In the eyes of onlookers, nothing the child does is going to prove worthy of praise. No personal accomplishment will be recognized as hard-earned or well-deserved.
It’s complicated. But it became my reality in the 2018-19 school year when my son sat in the passenger seat on our commute to school, entered the building by my side, and dropped his backpack at a table in my first hour English class. From the first period of the first day of school, our relationship would be forever impacted.
A year of car rides, shared experiences around school, conversations at home, and increased time spent together strengthened our father-son bond (I just checked to make sure…he confirmed my claim). Although I was technically the teacher, I learned more from my son than I could ever deliver to him as a student in my class. Fifteen years ago, when I became a parent, I became a better teacher. But I can honestly say nothing made as great an impact as teaching my own child.
I was accountable. I had to be intentional in my preparation, words, and actions, and as a result, more reflective than ever before.
Here are 10 lessons, reminders, and takeaways from the school year…
1. Start class on a positive, personal note.
Nothing in the content of the course is as important as the relationships created in a welcoming environment. What we teach is significant. What we model is paramount. Beginning each class with informal conversations and personal check-ins may not score points on an administrative evaluation, but they earn lasting respect from those that matter most–our students.
This is why Joe Sanfelippo stresses the importance of being intentional in creating a culture of trust every 30 seconds. We cannot force students to want to attend class or love our curriculum; but we can provide a safe, inviting space where everyone has a voice and an opportunity to find success. I hope all of my students, including my son, know they matter.
2. Pay attention.
In order to reinforce Angela Maiers’ YOU MATTER Manifesto, I had to remind myself to be more aware. More empathetic. More real. I made a genuine effort to pay attention to what every student was involved in after school, note when their mood changed, recognize when they looked tired, understand when my class lesson was not a priority in their stressful day. As a result, I respectfully knew when to push and when to back off.
3. Be intentional with every decision.
On the ride to school, I expected my son to ask, “What’s the plan for today?” I had to be prepared with an answer and a rationale. Purposeful planning became a priority, as it should be, but having to verbalize what and why forced me to be aware of my delivery. My son provided immediate feedback. He helped me consider alternative options and let me know if the activity would be well received or bound to fail. These simple conversations also helped me rehearse before sharing with a room of freshmen. Consequently, I provided better directions and set clearer expectations than in the past.
4. Don’t be boring. Bring it everyday.
I dreaded the very real possibility of my son having to hear some form of honest criticism from his peers. “Your dad’s class sucks…” While it’s hard to please everyone–and reality says my class is certainly not everyone’s favorite–I needed to bring it everyday. “It” refers to energy, enthusiasm, a sense of humor, a smile, spontaneity, and fun.
My students and I set the vibe together, refusing to simply go through the motions of school. I gave students permission to challenge the relevance of any lesson. They held me accountable for being up front with the purpose of what I invited them to learn. Likewise, I insisted they attack every challenge by making a personal connection to the concept and add their unique voice to everything they produced.
5. Make the experience meaningful.
In order to provide a meaningful experience, I had to determine what was worthwhile for our limited time together. What are the essential elements of what I teach? How do the units fit together within the school year? What needs to be assigned and how can we go into greater depth in our learning? Although it hurts to eliminate old favorites, some activities are simply time-fillers. More than anything, what do I want to guarantee my son knows before he moves on to the next level of his education? Certainly, I don’t want him to have any gaps in his learning, considering I had the opportunity to fill in the blanks.
With the intent of making sense of a full year of curricular units in English 9, students began telling their learning story on day one. Their plain crashed on Lit Island, the first world of Durstopia. There was no going back. Did they have what it takes to survive? Could they conquer the series of missions and challenges to navigate their way through each world? Of course, they could. And did. Yes, Durstopia is gamified, but it is not a game. There is meaning behind every learning decision, woven together in one cohesive story line rather than unrelated topics from one isolated unit to the next.
6. Make it memorable.
If I claim to be a collector of memories in the classroom, I need create opportunities for the memorable to happen. Provide time for Ruby to share her “joke of the day” before starting class. Take a hike around campus on the first day back from spring break before diving into the new unit. Insist that Sydney perform the song she was anxiously rehearsing for her after school choir audition. Stop everything for a day of play (GSPD). Or, better yet, play the game Kolton created during the Global Day of Design challenge. Pass the fake microphone to someone other than me, so I’m not the only one talking.
7. Capture the experiences.
8. Be respectful of time.
When I paid closer attention to the school calendar, I knew when groups of students would be busiest. Although I joke about teachers intentionally planning times where students have to suffer with multiple tests or major projects due on the same day, by knowing what was going on in other classes, I was more flexible with due dates and pacing.
If I didn’t want my kid to stay up all night completing an assignment for my class, I didn’t assign it. If we could not take care of the work in one class period, we always had the next day. So, there’s no homework, just coursework. The message communicated from one year of students to the next is clear. If students take care of business in class and respect time dedicated to study, they should not have to drag extra work into their personal time after school.
My son, whose backpack was full of work every night, appreciated not having to worry about tedious English assignments. Periodically, he chose to read further in a novel or review a presentation, but rarely considered the work a burden. Justifying the excessive workload to my wife would have certainly created dystopian conditions in our household.
9. Be fair.
How do I look around the room and not play favorites (could be my own kid or the model student who shows genuine interest in every lesson and laughs at all of my jokes)? By getting to know students as individuals and as learners, I could better challenge, support, and guide their experience. According to the feedback I received, the pacing of the course felt comfortable; students rarely felt overwhelmed or rushed. Learners acknowledged expectations were high, but work was not burdensome as it feels in some classes.
Activities were hands-on and creative; learning was “unforced,” “natural,” and “relevant to our lives.” They appreciated having options for designing outcomes and having choices of how to show their learning.
I also had to deliver unbiased assessment. Fair assessment means increasing transparency. Expectations need to be clear. I learned to provide specific directions with concrete steps for the more sequential learners. I frequently checked to ensure the assessment matched the target. I modeled examples and made sure all students understood success criteria before submitting work. I increased my use of anonymous feedback on formative assessment for all to see. Ultimately, I became a better teacher.
10. Find balance.
The healthy reminder. It is fun to relive events of the school day, but there are new adventures waiting at home. I need to balance work and play. Professional and personal. Attention to other children and my own. Time spent planning and time spent reflecting. Giving time to others and taking time for myself. Working and resting. Talking and listening. Teaching and learning. Understanding at the end of the day, I am enough.
Yes, I would want my own child to be a student in my classroom. In fact, I cannot think of anything more gratifying in my teaching career. Both of us proved to have what it takes to survive in Durstopia. My son may have escaped from the final world in Durstopia, but his name will forever be embedded in its title. He not only left a legacy in my first hour class, he has pushed me to be more intentional in teaching all students.
And I’m not done being held accountable for improving my craft. I have two more years to get better before my seventh grade daughter puts my teaching to the test. She’s on her way. And she expects my best.
I would love to hear from other teacher-parents. How does being a parent impact your teaching? If you already taught your child, what did you learn from the experience?