Monday, July 16, 2007

Helicopters

I have such trouble blogging on the weekends. And even now I'm cheating. I wrote this for a department newsletter and edited out some identifying information.

My original title was "Blessings of a Chagrined C," but the editor didn't like it, so I changed it.

Reflections from the Helicopter Generation

I’ve been a teacher for 18 years and a mother for 7, but it’s only recently that I’ve been self-conscious about the way these two roles intersect. At first I thought that being a teacher would help me be a better mom. I know how to communicate, how to be patient, and how to break down a seemingly unmanageable task into smaller, more easily mastered steps. Suffice it to say that my expectations proved to be wishful thinking.

Nowadays I’m more interested in how being a mother has started to affect my teaching. I can’t remember when I realized I was using similar techniques to manage students in the classroom as I do to manage my active three-year-old and six-year-old in my living room, but I can tell you I felt quite a bit of guilt about it. Was I infantilizing my students? Isn’t it insulting them to treat them like toddlers? When I need to get my children’s attention in a non-threatening way, I often make a silly face or sing a song. How much different is that from singing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to wake up a classroom of drowsy students bored by a lesson on simile? For most parents, anticipating trouble times is the key to parental success with moody toddlers. “We’re leaving in 5 minutes,” I often tell my son to prepare him for leaving the playground. How is that much different from warning students, most of whom have watches and all of whom know how to read the clock on the wall, that they have 5 minutes left to complete an exam?

I often fear I am coddling my students the way I tell myself not to coddle my children. We live in a world of helicopter parents, hovering over their children every minute of the day, ready to swoop in whenever their children face the slightest obstacle. I often vow not to be that kind of parent, but inevitably I cannot help seeing myself as my children’s advocate. I come from a generation where we expect ourselves, as parents, to take on this role. And now, having turned 40 this year, I have entered the same decade as the moms of most of my students. Though my children are younger, I share these values with my students’ parents.

So does being a mom help me be a better teacher? Or am I merely replicating the same dynamic many of our students have with their parents? Should I be a different kind of role model, a different kind of authority figure?

Last summer, the line between parenting and teaching became even more permeable to me when I read a book on parenting called Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel. Mogel is a family therapist who had an epiphany about her parenting philosophy as she was re-exploring her Jewish spiritual heritage. Mogel realized that many of the tenets of her religion offer important life lessons for parents trying to raise happy, successful children. Too often, she says, the parents she works with in her therapy sessions are overly invested in making their children happy. When that desire guides all their actions as parents, the results are devastating. The children that these parents want to be happy instead lack confidence and become overly dependant on their parents.

Mogel argues instead that parents should be motivated by the desire to create resilient, self-reliant children. Instead of making their children happy, parents should see their job as preparing children for adulthood. This doesn’t mean treating children as adults but instead encompasses the idea of gradually preparing children to handle future obstacles and problems they will face – with confidence, strength and grace. The skinned knee can be a blessing because it teaches a child to handle being hurt, and an overprotective parent who tries to cushion the child from pain and risk does the child a disservice.

And both as a mom and a teacher, I understand that gut reaction to make the child happy. When I’m in a store, it gives me pleasure to buy my daughter or son a toy; it’s easier to let the children have chicken nuggets for the fifth time this week instead of making them eat their vegetables; when they’re bored, why not let them evict me from the computer instead of requiring them to use their imaginations and make up a game.

The same often holds true in teaching. I find myself choosing stories on the basis of what I think the students will like to read, as if making them happy is the main reason for the choices on my syllabus. The students like group work and they seem grumpy today, so should I throw out my lesson plan and put them in groups? When they moan at a challenging assignment, I feel an internal pressure to immediately console them or offer them a treat if they only read their broccoli.

But why should I be so invested in making them happy? On one hand, faculty assessment is based on student evaluations, thus creating a culture where happy students mean happy faculty and administrators. But on the other, I think it’s a generational problem. This is how I and my peers act with our children; it’s unsurprising that we feel compelled to act this way with our students.

So in the end, with a bit of reflection, I’m finding that being a mother is teaching me a lot about education. It’s teaching me to be self-conscious of my own desire to please rather than to guide. Reading books like Wendy Mogel’s reminds me of the principle underlying what we do when we teach. I am here not just to make my students happy in my classroom but to prepare them for the world outside of college. And that means that the classroom is going to be a little bit like my house right when I’m reminding my children to brush their teeth: “But do we have to?”

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