I think I became a teacher for the same reasons that I wanted to become a parent; I love watching kids figure things out, find their ‘aha’ moments and overcome challenges to reach success. I think what I love most about teaching and parenting is that it forces self reflection; any ego that I may have had has to be left behind. Just when I think that I have figured something out, and worked out a particular teaching and parenting strategy, something else comes along to challenge that. It is fascinating.
I am no expert. I’m not sure anyone can claim to be when it comes to both parenting and teaching. Every child is different and every situation demands a different response. I think that it is this aspect that I love the most about parenting and teaching. In both vocations, the learning never stops. It never gets boring. We are the sum of all the experiences we have and all those we craft for others.
There are, however a couple of strategies that I discovered when I was a teacher that I have found to be particularly useful, and I often draw on them as a parent.
1: Encourage, encourage, encourage.
I remember in my first year of teaching I confided with my friend, who is a psychologist, about my frustrations about not being able to reach a student who was particularly unruly. I felt demotivated because I felt like I spent the entire lesson redirecting the student rather than teaching her and building a relationship with her. This friend told me something that I have never forgotten. She advised me to ignore the bad behaviour as much as possible and, whenever I see the smallest sign of genuine co-operation from the student, to acknowledge it. And so I did. Every lesson, I tried to find one thing I could complement this student on. Some lessons it was really hard to find that one thing because the behaviour was so atrocious. Gradually, however, I started finding there were more instances of positive behaviour. One day, I realised that there was no negative behaviour to studiously ignore. Together, the student and I had established a mutually respectful working relationship.
I think the lesson that I learnt from this is that when a child behaves badly, they are sending a message (however frustrating and inappropriate) that they are in need of your attention. By giving the child as much love and attention as possible, and re-enforcing positive behaviour, there is no longer any need for the negative behaviour.
This was a lesson I had to relearn as a parent. My son has always been very curious and a little too busy to take time out to eat. This resulted in many frustrating meals where he refused to eat or turned his back on us. We begged, played games and pleaded with him to eat. Gradually we realised he responded encouragement, so we switched tactics. We started ignoring his throwing of food and his adamant ‘No’s’ and just congratulated him when he took a bite – no matter how small. The change has been gradual, but he’s much more positive about meal times. Nowadays, he runs up to a chair and pats it so that we lift him up to the table – provided he has his trusty toy car and train to keep him company!
2: The more rules you have, the more rules you will need to re-enforce.
In teaching, if you make a rule, you have to follow through with it otherwise you look silly. Make too many rules and you spend the entire lesson just following through on consequences. What a waste of time. Gradually, over a number of years, I learnt to reserve rules for really important issues like safety. Young kids and teenagers have trouble retaining too many instructions. A few key rules are easier to remember and have more impact. The by-product of this is that kids start to learn to think for themselves rather than being directed.
3: Have the right type of expectations, because whatever they are, kids will try to live up to them.
Kids (and adults) are highly skilled at social nuances and are constantly looking to see what the adults around them think about them. They pick up on our body language and respond to it. So, what you expect is pretty much what you get.
Negative expectations can have a terrible effect on kids’ motivations. Positive expectations build confidence and help give kids a framework. I remember having a fascinating conversation with a group of year 10 students. One of them made the comment ‘Everyone knows we are the naughty year level, so what is the point of doing anything good; no one will notice.’ When I queried this assumption, my students told me that they had no idea why they felt that they were seen as a disruptive year, they just had the feeling that teachers saw them this way.
I found it quite devastating to know that an entire year level felt the weight of a label that they couldn’t shift. The problem with negative expectations is that they become an endless cycle. Kids live up to the expectations and then earn them, further degrading their sense of selves and perception of what others think of them.
So, with my toddler, I try to start each day afresh and remember that he is only learning, and that bad behaviour is passing. The most important thing for him is to develop a sound sense of self, free of negative associations.
4: Have clear instructions and expectations and you are less likely to encounter problems.
After a chaotic first year of teaching when I was learning the ropes, I reflected and made some huge changes. I stopped expecting that kids would know what was expected of them and I started to make things more explicit.
I began every lesson with some (hopefully) clear instructions about what was to be learnt and my expectations of the class. For instance, at the beginning of a painting class, I would let my year 7s know what time they were to start cleaning up their paint mess and how they were to go about it. At the end of the class, I would remind the kids about clean-up. It would usually take a month or so, but my students would get to know this expectation and begin tidying up without a reminder – 10 minutes before the lesson finished.
How does this translate to my toddler? I’m a fairly flexible ‘take it as it comes’ type of parent, but I try to keep to some routines. These help to punctuate the day, so my son knows what to expect and will often help us with whatever it is.
5: Give kids plenty of warning.
Students are much more cooperative if they know what you have planned for them. I knew this, but as a parent, I somehow forgot it. During a maternal health visit when my son was 6 months old, I was wrangling my wriggly protesting son back into his nappy while complaining about how hard it was to get him to stop rolling away. The nurse stopped me, looked me in the eye and said, ‘would you like to be placed on a mat and have your pants pulled down with no warning?’
I went home with my tail between my legs, but with powerful insight. That same day, before a nappy change, I picked up a nappy, showed it to my son while saying ‘nappy change’. He looked at me, looked at the nappy and lay still. For the first time in months I was able to get the nappy on in one go. All he needed was some warning. At 16 months, he now gets his change mat out when he needs to be changed and brings it to me! (Sometimes… other times I still have to chase him around the house with a nappy, but there is a marked improvement.)
6: Kids can sniff a fake complement from a mile away.
While it is important to encourage, teachers know to choose their complements wisely. Kids start to switch off if your speech is peppered with commendations, and subsequently do not value them highly. Influential educator John Hattie, author of Visible Learning and Professor of Educational Research at Melbourne University, says it is important to ‘focus feedback on the task, not the learner’. Statements such as ‘you clever boy, you’ve built a cool lego tower’ don’t really help a kid to understand what they did well. Replacing these with clear descriptions, assist kids to understand what they did well, how they improved and where to next. For example: ‘Wow, that lego tower you built looks really strong. I see you used some big bricks for a base; that was a great choice as it has helped strengthen it. I wonder if that would help with the boat you were trying to build the other day?’
7: Fun first, then the serious stuff.
One thing I learnt as a teacher is not to undervalue the fun factor. If kids aren’t having fun, then they won’t be engaged in the task at hand. Having fun with kids also helps build relationships and strengthens them through experiences.
8: Focus on effort rather than achievement.
As a kid, I struggled with maths and science and could never really grasp the concepts taught to me. Once, determined to change this, I studied really hard for a science exam. I spent ages going over notes and making sure I understood the content. I had my friends quiz me. I made posters, I drew diagrams and I made up songs to remember key concepts.
I failed the exam.
I was gutted.
I never wanted to step into a science class again.
It takes time for some kids to grasp concepts, and if we focus just on the outcome (an exam, a test, a perfectly baked cake), and not on the effort, we risk ignoring the real learning that has taken place. Not everyone can be an A+ student, but hey, everyone can improve on their previous efforts. What should really matter is the individual journey to learning. The paths that are taken may be different, and the outcomes may be different, but what matters is the experience, and what is learnt along the way.
If we focus on the outcome of a task, we not only hinder kids from enjoying the process, but we hinder the pursuit of learning. It is no wonder that children, in our competitive society, are beset with anxiety issues.
So, if and when my son decides to make his first batch of cupcakes or ride his bike for the first time, I hope that I will remember to focus on what he is doing rather than what he intends to do. I hope I will congratulate him for the brave step he took hopping on that bike, or for the lop-sided cupcakes that he lovingly made by following a recipe all by himself. I hope that I will be able to teach him that we should only ever be in competition with ourselves.
9: Mistakes are opportunities for learning.
Effective learning is the process of testing ideas, gathering information, making mistakes and evaluating the results. Kids (like adults) are often very fearful of mistakes and view them as shameful. The best thing we can do as parents and teachers is to model making mistakes and the subsequent recovery from them. We need to instil in our kids that mistakes are valuable insights. When we are not fearful of mistakes, learning becomes playful. It is experimental, unpredictable and there are endless opportunities to learn something new. If anything, I hope that this is a lesson I have learnt that I will carry forward to my children.
10. The learning never stops. Surround yourself with colleagues to share the fun.
As a parent on maternity leave from teaching, I find myself missing my staff room of colleagues. I loved being able to debrief with a colleague, and work out new ways to approach teaching particular students. I miss having a group of experts, all willing to dispense advice, all willing to pick you up when you’ve had a hard day, and all willing to share and celebrate your own ‘aha’ moments.
Parenting can be isolating. One thing I have learnt is that I need people to help me work out where I stand on parenting issues. The friends I have made since having my son have been invaluable. I hope that I teach this to my son, too: that he will be all the better for surrounding himself with people that strive to be better every day.