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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.

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.

 

5 Comments

Deidra Gammill commented on May 17, 2014 at 10:11am:

Mrs. Ferguson and Clouds

First, kudos for making your children your first priority. You've given them a gift that will shape the very fabric of their destinies. I wish our culture really honored the parent/child relationship and recognized its vital importance. Finland serves as such a marvelous example of the extraordinary lasting benefits of elevating both parents and teachers in their country.The US needs to take note.

Reading your post made me think about unexpectedly bumping into my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Ferguson, during the Christmas holidays. Mrs. Ferguson always encouraged my love of reading and was perhaps the most compassionate of all the educators who taught me in elementary, middle or high school. But when I saw her while attending a church service with my parents, the first words out of my mouth were, “I remember that great lesson you taught on types of clouds and the water cycle.” She taught me thirty-five years ago, yet my strongest memory of her is tied to a lesson on clouds.

I don’t remember the names of other teachers that year – the PE teacher, the music teacher, or even the school principal. I don’t remember the names of most of the children in my class. But I remember Mrs. Ferguson and clouds.

Later that day, my parents asked me why a lesson on clouds had come to mind first. I assumed it was one of those things that stuck out because it had been a fun and interesting lesson, but I associated my memory as more of a connection with her kindness to me than I did with the lesson itself.

Reading your blog post made me rethink that assumption. I wonder now if that memory remains strong because she led us in a hands-on exploration of how things worked; I don’t remember taking notes or even listening to a lecture. I remember doing. Granted, a lot of that doing involved cotton balls and plastic cups, but it was doing nonetheless.

Using that as a jumping off point, I tried to see how many other specific memories I could conjure from my own K-12 experience. I quickly realized that the memories that remained clearest and strongest were those tied to emotions (playground humiliations, an affirming word from a teacher) and those that involved me doing as part of the learning experience. Even though I majored in English and became a teacher of writing and literature, the teachers I remember with the most clarity are my science teachers. Ironic? Maybe. Perhaps the irony lies in those being the only teachers who had (or felt they had) the freedom to make learning experiential for us, even in the late 70s and early 1980s, long before NCLB. Not much has changed for teachers in the ensuing decades, has it?

I can’t help but wonder if the movement we’re seeing towards teacher leadership from within the classroom AND this re-emerging emphasis on experiential learning aren’t closely related. How else will we be able to shift the focus from our teaching to their learning, from the end product (testing) to the actual thinking/questioning/exploring learning process our students so desperately need?

When did we lose sight of the importance of the journey? When did the destination become all that mattered?

Awesome post (as always). There’s so much more you wrote that I’d love to comment on, but I’ll leave room for others. Nobody likes a "comment hog" ;)

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on May 19, 2014 at 2:53pm:

Beautiful insights, Deidra!

Deidra, my first thought on reading this beautiful comment (which could be a blog post in itself) is that I hope you're a blogger, and I'd love to read your work if so--please send me a link if you have some pieces. (You're not a comment hog; you're a comment angel.)

I'm fascinated by the connection you mentioned between teacher leadership and experiential learning--I'll have to ponder that for awhile.

I'm bewildered, too, by the fragmentary memories I have from school and from my early childhood in general. I imagine that, like yours, they're tied to strong emotion or strong sensory experiences. I remember field trips, playing tag with my 3rd grade teacher Mr. Lewis on the playground, and simulations like a bartering post Mr. Lewis set up to teach about Arkansas history. (I foolishly traded many Voltron figures for a handful of 'drink tickets' that would let you get up and go get a drink from the fountain.)

I know that I learned important things I don't remember. But I also think there's tremendous value in those vivid memories, and it makes sense to me that for you, so many had to do with the kind of inquiry and hands-on experience that science tends to involve.

One more thing: I love your point about the emphasis of parenting in Finland; it's an aspect of their system I haven't heard discussed, but now I'm curious.

Thanks so much for writing. I'd love to hear any other thoughts you have.

Deidra Gammill commented on May 19, 2014 at 9:03pm:

Justin,

Justin,

I do have a blog but it's more of a spiritual journey sort of blog. But you're welcome to visit if you like (www.30daysofgracechallange.blogspot.com).

And yes, challenge is misspelled in the web address. Long story but suffice to say it keeps me humble! I don't write there as much as I used to; seems I'm not much of a multi-tasker in the world of writing ;)

About Finland ... I was fortunate enough to hear Pasi Sahlberg at the Teaching & Learning conference in DC. In addition to the wonderful information he shared about schools, teachers and students, he also talked about the emphasis the Finnish govt puts on family and the importance of a parent being a child's first teacher. There were all sorts of practical things in place that allows a parent to stay home with a child during the first 6-7 years without losing income. That alone speaks volumes about how the Finnish people value family. I encourage you to do some searching/reading. I wanted to move to Finland after hearing his session! 

:)

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on May 20, 2014 at 2:24pm:

How Sheryl Sandberg won me over

Sheryl Sandberg won me over with a single line in her book Lean In: “Success, for me, is that if my soon chooses to be a stay-at-home parent, he is cheered on for that decision. And if my daughter chooses to work outside the home, she’s cheered on and supported.”

There was a fascinating study on birth rates in various countries that came to this conclusion:

A country can either be flexible or generous, if it wants its citizens to choose to become parents. The U.S. is flexible when it comes to parental leave though definitely not generous; Scandinavian countries tended  to be less flexible but very generous; countries with declining birth rates like Italy and Portugal are neither.

Sweden had an innovative policy to get more dads to stay at home that involved a certain portion of parental leave that would simply be lost if the dad didn't take it.

Relative to recruiting/retaining teachers, the U.S. should clearly be more generous (in terms of both starting salary and opportunities for salary increases beyond  the incremental nudges up the traditional scale), but it's worth thinking through ways that flexibility can be part of the solution to the impending teacher shortage, too--particularly for Generations X and Y who tend to value that flexibility very highly.

Brendan Breault commented on July 10, 2014 at 1:58am:

teaching & parenting

Thanks for sharing your experiences as a parent and a teacher - very insightful.  It's interesting to compare the two roles.  As a father of three kids (5y, 3y, 2m) it's amazing how much learning occurs naturally.  I'm frequently asking questions such as  "How did you know that?" "Who taught you that word?" or to my wife, "Did you teach her that?"  I agree - one of the joys of parenting is providing your kid(s) with new, diverse experiences and allowing them to explore.  This philosophy translates well to my classroom too. 

As a PE teacher, one of my favorite times of the year is the Jump Rope For Heart unit.  I begin by showing my students an instructional video, detailing a variety of ways to jump rope by yourself, with a partner, and in a group.  For the next three weeks, students are challenged to learn new skills.  By the end of the unit, I'm always amazed with their creativity.  Students start experimenting with the rope, coming up with new skills year after year.  I get to show off the skills in an annual highlight video that never fails to impresss (and hopefully inspire) its audience!

 

 

 

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