Maggie Greenwood, my first teaching mentor, was a terrific teacher. She left high school at 17 and became a teacher after just 6 months of training (can you imagine?). She’d taught just two grades in her career, Kindergarten and grade 8, and firmly believed that these were the most important grades.
Maggie set high standards for her students, and they learned a lot, but her expectations were often balanced with compassion. I heard her explain to a parent that their child needed to focus on emotional development this year, so they shouldn’t expect much academic growth. She counseled them to ‘back off’ and give him some room to grow. I use the things I learned from Maggie Greenwood every day when I work with students.
Maggie believed that her compassion and commitment to the well-being of students was because she had no children of her own. Her students were “hers” and she invested her dormant maternal energy in them. At the time this made sense, but now I’m not sure.
Six years later, when I became a father, I had my own grade 8 students. It’s a cliché to say I didn’t understand how profoundly this would change me, but I say it anyway. Years later, when my brother told me he was becoming a father and asked for advice, all I could offer were weak platitudes. The shift is too big to express and he couldn’t understand it anyway. You have to go through it to ‘get’ it. Most parents understand this.
Becoming a parent changed how I taught. Things got real. I felt a new connection to my students. They weren’t just students, they were someone’s children. I felt the weight of the responsibility parents placed in me to care for, nurture and protect their children because I placed the same trust in others. I often asked myself “If this student were my child, how would I want a teacher to talk to them? To treat them?”
Being a parent also changed how I saw the parents of my students. They weren’t ‘clients’ but compatriots. We were on the same team. We understood the joys and tribulations of parenting and we wanted the absolute best for our children. Parents are not one thing of course (Whitman comes to mind, “I contain multitudes”) so connecting parent-to-parent didn’t ensure agreement, but at least we were speaking the same language.
Being a parent informs my teaching practice; it makes me a better teacher. Why then, in the highly politicized climate of education, does raising my voice as a teacher mean losing my voice as a parent? When I express an opinion on education issues I’m often asked to categorize myself as a teacher or a parent, as if I can’t be both. In some jurisdictions teachers are prevented from participating fully in school councils of their own children!
There’s much energy being expended on increasing parent voice in education and facilitating parent input. Yet we ignore that the vast majority of educators are also parents. They too make lunches, help with homework, pack backpacks and send their children off to school. Why do we ignore them as parents and see them only in their professional role?
There is already a parent voice in my classroom. It is mine. I am the proxy for the parents of my students. Each day I honour the trust they place in me. I try to see their children as they do and to treat them as I think they’d want me to. When I opine on education I speak not just as a teacher, but also as a father. I don’t think my parent voice shouldn’t matter just because I have chalk dust on my fingers.