I started teaching as a youngster; not quite straight out of school, but a life adjustment (one year in Australia, where my A levels were disrupted) and career hiccup in a science lab (a year counting worms and getting mightily sea sick), led me to consider a career in teaching. When I started I was already married, but no children on the horizon. Although I started in Secondary education, my heart and soul were in Primary, so I soon found my niche.
As a “probationer” teacher, I will always remember my first parent evening, when, as a twenty-something, I was dispensing parenting advice to thirty-plusses, with an assurance that was, on reflection, probably misplaced. Fortunately, no-one told me how off the mark I was. Maybe any advice was reassuring, that someone was prepared to engage in discussion. It was an area that attracted a large number of settled traveller families.
Of course, I knew about child development; I’d read the books and attended the lectures, but the real world, of watching children grow and change, apart from the teaching practices that lasted 14 weeks, extended exposure to children had not really featured, and those who had passed through my tender care as a developing teacher could all be handed back to their parents at 3.30pm.
It was a few years later when our first child came along. There’s a strangeness about the first. As a parent, you have no yardstick. There are the norms, of which you are aware, so I dutifully counted arms, legs, fingers and toes and then discovered we had had a little girl, then cried, as the birth of your child is a hugely emotional point in one’s life. And she couldn’t be handed back, at any time.
It is hard not to reflect on Jean-Jacques Rousseau at this point, as the development of one’s own child is a marking of small changes, adaptations and each new “phase”, the crawling and walking and talking. Were these stages at an appropriate time? How fast is the change? There is a mental ticking off from a hidden list that either allows for comfort, or creates a discomfort that has to be investigated, such as health issues like size, sight, hearing, or developmental issues like speech.
We were a talking and doing household, both being teachers, so tables became dens with a blanket, books abounded, as did drawing, painting, modelling in clay or junk, puppets, poetry, songs and lots of stories. Visiting places of interest, or just out walking gave space for lots of pointing and “look at the…” developing both interest and a background language. Preschool experiences built on these, with the addition of socialisation with others, an essential aspect, especially for the first born and the only child in the family at that time.
Then came school, and we were lucky that the Reception teacher treated us just as parents, supporting us and our daughter into school. It was a first for us, as a family, and it was a partnership. Home-school diaries, common in the 70s as an ongoing reading record, as well as general background, helped the conversation between home and school. We still see that reception teacher, who asks how each child is, by name.
It was often a different picture as school developed. We had a strong child, able, exploratory, interested and sociably. Some teachers sought to bring us into a form of conspiracy, teacher and parent dominant, seeking to suppress some of the stronger tendencies. Conversations would develop along the lines of “Well Mr and Mrs C, (or they’d use first names if they thought we were “friends”), you’ll know how it is with…” As she could read, write and do basic maths, just through experiential talking, before school, she was a challenge to their system. And that was the challenge of teacher parents, who had an inkling of how to bring up children effectively, did their best, offered a width of experience, close parenting, talking and time. These conversations were hardest with teachers who did not have their own children, so had limited empathy. Our growing of our child and later a couple more, was causing a problem to the system. They were “advanced” for their age, both through nature and nurture.
There can be a down side to being bright in such a structure, as under-challenge leads to boredom and occasionally to behaviour that causes a problem for the teacher. That leads to “interesting” discussions between teacher and parent. As a teacher, it is often the case that “I expect…” leads the discussion, whereas for the parent, it is more a case of “How are you challenging…? This can lead to a minor conflict of interest. Both parties want the best, but see different routes to achieving that. The scenario can be worsened, if, as a teacher, you might hold different views and approaches to the class teacher on how to deal with the issue, as this is also a meeting of equals. It occasionally got worse as I got promoted, but it also enabled more nuanced discussion with informed and confident class teachers, to everyone’s advantage.
One occasion did need the “heavy” approach, when one teacher favourite in a junior class made negative comments to the teacher, which effectively resulted in the teacher bullying our child, which caused significant distress in the home. Knowing how things worked, I was able to write a letter to the head, which resulted in a class move and internal changes. The head knew she was on thin ice, especially if she did nothing. It was the only time that I used my “position”, but it was good preparation for issues in headship, where similar things occurred, which were my responsibility.
Secondary education was the classic of distant parenting. Where we had been close supporters of Primary education, the transfer to Secondary started a dissociation, apart from parent evenings and one occasion where we were “called to the school”, with a deputy head who sought the dominant position. Parent evenings were often less than satisfactory, as the reports were often generic and the discussion based on the marks in a book. One or two teachers rarely looked at people directly, but stuck to their books. As these were open to see, and as I learned to read upside down, I was able to point out that the teacher was talking about a child other than ours, which was embarrassing, to say the least.
Being a teacher parent taught me a number of things;
- Prolonged lack of sleep, or illness causes behaviour change, in adults and children, but, as the adult, you can’t back out of the responsibility.
- Children 1, 2 and 3 are all different, even in the same family. They have multiple differences at the start and throughout their development. They are their own person, not clones. Girls are very different, to each other and to their brothers. Teachers shouldn’t expect on the basis of an earlier sibling. They make progress at different rates and in different ways. Bringing up children in such households is a “team game”, with involved adults coaching their offspring as the need arises.
- Teacher parents are likely to have strong minded and independent children, with articulacy and a broad range of experiences and interests that have been stimulate and developed.
- Teacher parents are likely to spend quality time, including weekends and holidays seeking out or creating child appropriate activities that build on inherent interests, or that are likely to develop an interest.
- Confident children may, as a result, be seen, simplistically, as arrogant, with negative responses. It can be based on the premise, “What can you expect from teacher parents?” Presumed confidence can hide other issues.
- Teacher parents know what colleagues are talking about, so talking straight is usually the best approach. However, you are not colleagues, but the teacher responsible for the learning of their child. Ensure the correct relationship develops.
- A working relationship is just that, a relationship, based on mutual understanding of each other’s role. It cannot and should not be presumed, just because the parents are teachers.
- Parents have aspirations for their children, from a simple enjoyment of all things to do with learning, through to the successes that will enable them to choose their next steps from a range of options.
- It is the child’s life. They have a view and should have a voice. My default position, which carried me through 16 years of headship was to say to children that they would tell me “their truth”, their view of an issue, but that I would check that with others. Parents sometimes want simple outcomes to what they see as simple problems. Too hasty a decision can result in an escalation of a problem, and, when parents become involved, problems can be prolonged.
- I learned, as a teacher, to look more closely at each individual child and to work closely with their parents, so that there were no hidden agendas. This honest approach enabled parents to approach the school and to rapidly resolve issues, as we carried out promises. Teachers, parents and children worked as a team.
- It was the progress of each individual child, who held a special place in the school that became the hallmark of the environment. Every child and every person mattered, long before that mantra was used politically.
- Being a teacher parent does not ensure that you are a perfect parent, nor does it mean that you have perfect children.