I recently became a teacher. Since I'm already a parent, I was curious to see which skills would transfer from parenting to teaching (and vice versa). In my experience, both parenting and teaching demand patience, flexibility, and an ability to multi-task. Both are equal parts joy and chaos, incredibly challenging but infinitely rewarding. I spent the last year building my teaching skills through student teaching and theory classes at my university. Here are some of my new skills that are helpful at home, too.
One of the most powerful tips for new teachers is also the simplest: tell your students how you want them to behave. Even if you think your students know what is expected, tell them. Even if you have told them once, tell them again. One of my mentors gifted me four little words that have empowered me as a high school teacher:
“The expectation is that…”
The expectation is that by the end of this period, you will have completed an outline of your essay.
The expectation is that you will work silently for the next 20 minutes.
The expectation is that you will be respectful of your peers during this class discussion.
At home, the script is not identical, but I am now more mindful of communicating expectations. When speaking to my children, I use a lot of “I” statements, “we” statements to lay out rules, and the “when or then” approach from Amy McCready of Positive Parenting Solutions. It's easy to communicate expectations with each of these tools.
I want you to stop pulling my hair because it doesn’t feel good for me.
We will hold hands on the subway platform.
When your show is over, then it will be time for stories.
Good teachers do not just communicate expectations, they brainstorm ways to facilitate student success in meeting those expectations. Peek into a classroom and you will see myriad examples, such as visual aides related to the subject matter, assigned seating for chatty middle schoolers, and even granola bars for hungry bellies. Teachers shape the path (to borrow a phrase from the Heath brothers) so that expectations can be met, and this is possible at home, too.
During this year’s Easter egg hunt, I employed my new skill of shaping the path. I wanted my two young sons to experience the excitement, joy, and sugar rush of a hunt, but I did not want them to fight over the candy. The expectation was that they would not bicker. So I hid chocolate eggs in sets of two. Each time one of my sons found a chocolate egg, there was another right beside it for his brother. Not only did the boys not bicker, but this approach created a feeling of teamwork.
Even when expectations are communicated, even when the path is shaped, little people will inevitably diverge from the plan. As a parent, my impulse is to lecture when things go off track. Surely I can talk them out of this! I always end up feeling like I'm making the situation worse.
As a teacher-in-training, I learned the value of nonverbal communication in correcting misbehavior. The educational theorist Fred Jones was a pioneer of this technique, claiming that maintaining eye contact while giving a disapproving look is an effective way to redirect misbehavior. The key is that you must not look away. You must not look away! Think staring contest. Wait it out until your little one breaks your stare and stops the misbehavior. The first time I tried this approach with my toddler, he exclaimed, “Hey, why you do mad face at me?” He then climbed off the piece of furniture on which he was standing.
Nonverbal communication can also feel like a game. Even when my kids are not off track, they respond well to the silliness of my trying to communicate with them through gesture. In reality, I’m sometimes too tired to talk, but they think it’s a game.
A mentor recently told me that if he ever feels that he's a perfect teacher with nothing else to learn, he should retire. Indeed, there is an expectation that teachers will continue to develop their skills throughout their careers. The same should be true for parenting. It's a misconception that people automatically know how to parent. In reality, parenting requires skill, and it's possible to grow our abilities. Rather than feeling stuck in negative patterns, we should remind ourselves that growth is possible. This mindset will benefit both our kids and ourselves (since feeling like a bad parent feels really bad). Becoming a teacher has taught me to reflect on my strengths and weaknesses and to always keep growing. Parenting and teaching are both hard work, but I know that we can do a good job.