Reflections of a Teacher-Dad

Hybrid roles usually enable teachers to bridge teaching with the worlds of policy, research, and curriculum development. My own hybrid role has enabled me to bridge teaching with the world of Baby Bookworms, toddler play dates, and adventures with three-year olds in the Botanical Gardens. All of us who teach have hybrid identities—teacher-blogger, teacher-runner, teacher-musician—and the most fundamental of those for me is teacher-dad. I’ve learned two transformative lessons through that role.

Hybrid roles usually enable teachers to bridge teaching with the worlds of policy, research, and curriculum development. My own hybrid role has enabled me to bridge teaching with the world of Baby Bookworms, toddler play dates, and adventures with three-year olds in the Botanical Gardens.

Since beginning at my current school in 2004, I have taken three full years off and wrangled two job-shares in order to be home with my six-year old daughter and three-year old son. That decision to balance fatherhood with teaching is one of the best choices I have ever made.

The identity of “teacher” reflects a fundamental part of who we are, not just what we do. All of us who teach have hybrid identities—teacher-blogger, teacher-runner, teacher-musician—and the most fundamental of those for me is teacher-dad. I’ve learned two transformative lessons through that role.

 

1. Kids learn a lot more than we tell them. They need time to play, explore, and work through experiences at their own pace.

Like most parents, I’m continuously amazed by my children. Their capacity for creativity, observation, inquiry, and insight is a constant source of wonder to me.

My students often amaze me, too, yet fatherhood feels very different from teaching. I don’t do mini-lessons with Ariana and Aidan on how to develop a rich imagination. I don’t give them a rubric to assess how keenly they observe caterpillars.

That doesn’t mean I have no role to play as they develop these abilities. I take them to places that are verdant with opportunities to look, listen, play, touch, and imagine. I ask them questions about their experiences and observations. I listen to what they say.

Maybe more important is what I don’t do. I don’t hurry them along. I don’t compare Ariana’s detailed drawings to Aidan’s more abstract swirls in order to “motivate” Aidan to add more detail to his artwork. I don’t give them candy or a trip to the treasure box when they say something particularly wonderful.

Teaching 25 kids is, in most ways, harder than parenting two. It’s not practical to let every single child work at her own pace all the time. We need more consequences and rules to impart curriculum to 25 students than to wander through the woods with a three-year old.

Still, most of us could infuse our students’ school day with more time for creativity and divergent thinking, a more thoughtful emphasis on intrinsic motivation, and a greater degree of choice. (Here are three posts on ways to incorporate choice into reading, writing, and math.)

Educators from John Dewey to Maria Montessori have long understood the power of rich classroom environments coupled with the time and freedom to explore them. That focus is even more important now that memorizing information matters less than creating new knowledge. Abilities like innovation, persistence, and creative thinking have become as essential to excelling in a profession as they are to leading a rich and meaningful life.

I’ve always liked the line that “A child is not a cup to be filled, but a candle to be lit.” Lighting those candles has less to do with what we tell kids about the world than what they learn about it through exploring, imagining, and observing the world that surrounds them.

 

2. Parents know their children more deeply than we can ever know our students.

I’m still amazed at that magic by which 25 strangers become 25 of my favorite people each school year. The daily conversations, fist-bumps, and moments of laughter accumulate like snowfall, gradual but transformative.

Still, I see my students every day for a year or two, not every day from the moment they’re born. I didn’t realize until becoming a dad how fundamental that difference is when it comes to knowing the human beings in my class.

I may see sides of my students that their parents don’t see. I may even see aspects of their potential that their parents don’t. But in the end, I’m a temporary presence in their lives. These children’s parents will still be a part of their lives a generation from now, when they have children of their own.

I’m grateful in my very bones for the other adults in my daughter’s life—her classroom teacher, art teacher, principal, babysitter, and on and on. They know her well and surely have insights into her nature and abilities that I lack. But none of them marveled at her solemn eyes and dusky velvet skin the moment she came into the world, gazing at everything around her with calm curiosity as if to say, “So that’s what the world looks like. Huh.”

None of them did a two-step shuffle like a drunken rain dance at 2 in the morning, cradling her swaddled self in their arms, crooning a lullaby drawn from a sleep-deprived brain capable at that hour of overwhelming love but not much else. And while some of these adults might take a bullet, leap in front of a freight train, or fight a rabid tiger to protect my daughter, I don’t think any of them would do it quite so instinctively as her mom or I would, without a moment’s hesitation or regret.

I get frustrated sometimes with my students’ parents. My internal monologue shouts, “Why are you putting a can of Coke in his lunch every day?! The kid’s seven years old. He’s hyped-up enough without an extra jolt of caffeine and sugar at 11:15 in the morning.”

I have to squelch my impulse to open a parent-teacher conference with, “So, you let a 2nd grader watch The Ring. Really? That movie’s too scary for me…and she watched it with her baby brother?!”

I need to remind myself that these parents love their son or daughter more than I ever will, more than I can. They know their son or daughter better than I ever will, too.

When I was student teaching in a kindergarten class, Rashid’s mom told me, “Now, don’t let him wear that LeBron headband at school—it makes him act like a punk.” Bizarrely, she was exactly right.

There are plenty of things I can teach my students’ parents—the value of reading with their child at night, the importance of conversation, the benefits of limiting TV to half an hour a day. But they have a lot to teach me too: what matters to their son or daughter, what their child needs from a teacher, how he or she learns best.

I’ve heard the line many times that “Parents are a child’s first teachers,” and it’s true. But what’s also true is that a parent’s role as teacher doesn’t end when their child starts kindergarten, or goes off to college. I still seek my mom and dad’s advice on everything from parenting dilemmas to a broken lawn mower, and I’m 36 years old.

My mom’s a play therapist, and part of what makes her so good at her job is that she teaches her techniques to parents so they can carry on the work without her. She cares about every child she works with, but she never confuses her interlude in their lives with the permanence of their parents.

 

Becoming a teacher changes you. So does becoming a mom or dad.

I’ve become a better thinker, reader, writer, mathematician, artist, and scientist, thanks to my students. I’ve become more patient, more curious, more joyful, and more awe-struck by the everyday world, thanks to my son and daughter.

Teachers and parents have a profound impact on the children in our care. But they change us, too. I’m grateful for the transformation.