If you didn’t know it already, this week is Teacher Appreciation Week. This means just as moms get ready to rock those fashion-forward Mother’s Day t-shirts, teachers get a shot at that tote bag we’ve been dreamily eyeing – or at least a flurry of emails assuring us that “2 teach is 2 touch lives 4ever.” (Occasionally, we also get Starbucks gift cards. Hint hint.)
As an experienced teacher and a rookie parent, this is the first year I’ll be celebrating both holidays. It’s also a reminder that it’s been a long time since I’ve been a beginner at something where the stakes are so high. Of course, parenting isn’t exactly like teaching. Teachers don’t have to take their screaming students on airplanes. And moms don’t have thirty other babies watching how they handle the first baby who tries to grab the dog’s eyeball.
Luckily, there are enough similarities that some lessons learned as a teacher carry over to parenting.
1. You want to be perfect now that there are kids involved… but you’re still just you. Teachers have already learned the hard way that strengths and weaknesses from our personal lives carry over into our teaching styles. The same applies to moms: under that layer of pureed sweet potatoes, you’re still the same flawed, realistically portrayed character you were before you had kids. You’re still more organized than creative (or more creative than organized). You’re still more ambitious than patient (or more patient than ambitious). There are many traits that make a good teacher or parent. No one has them all, and some of them can even contradict one another. Your goal is not to conceal your weaknesses or disguise them as strengths. It is to identify your true strengths and use them to reinforce potential weak spots.
2. Everyone’s got an opinion… and it’s not always helpful. Back me up on this, teachers: Everyone who has either been to school or watched Freedom Writers feels qualified to help us out with a few tips. (You know, just like watching Law and Order or getting pulled over would make someone qualified to give advice to police officers.) Teachers have a long history of getting cornered by people who suggest we “make learning fun,” or “relate the lessons to kids’ lives,” as if this was something we’d never thought of before. As parents, this makes us uniquely prepared to deal with the stranger who suggests that, “she’s probably hungry,” when our infant is screaming in line during a shopping trip we tried to plan around her feeding schedule. Additionally, every teacher, at some point in her career, has received advice that boils down to, “Well, that would never happen in MY classroom.” The self-destructive behavior soul-searching prompted by this type of “advice” has shown us that it’s not actually advice. It’s obnoxious non-advice that allows the speaker to feel good at your expense. It also tends to be a sign of insecurity. Remember this when a fellow mom goes out of her way to tell you her child is gifted, or that she breast-fed twice as long as you did, or that or that her child is gifted because she breast fed twice as long as you did.
3. Beware of comparing your unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels. As a new teacher, I read books by award winning teachers who taught their kids to play violin during lunch. I drove to multiple used-book stores after a presenter recommended collecting National Geographic magazines for classroom activities. I dutifully repeated the mantra that, “failure is not an option.” Unfortunately, it turned out that in my classroom, failure was in fact an option. It also turns out that on a day when a second-grader curses at you, you don’t want to hear other people’s heartwarming success stories. Likewise, your sleep-deprived evil twin doesn’t want to hear from the well-rested mom who melted off her pregnancy weight with calorie-burning hugs. Or whatever. It’s not because you’re mean. It’s because we all need to know we can bounce back from our worst moments and still go on to be good at this. We also need someone to acknowledge that even theoretically good advice can break down in practice. So don’t feel bad, moms, when only three of your favorite book’s “17 strategies guaranteed to make your baby sleep through the night” are even remotely helpful. And FYI, teachers, National Geographic is nota good learning tool for fourth graders, because it has pictures of naked people in it. I’m just saying. Someone could have warned me about that.
4. Taking care of yourself physically and mentally is part of the job. Both teachers and moms often hear that we’re doing the most important job in the world. That’s a lot of pressure. After all, if “one hundred years from now all that will matter is the difference you made in the life of a child,” you better not mess this up. Hence, the impulse to follow that nighttime feeding schedule to the minute or stay up until we have that final graded essay. (And hence, the outrageous turnover statistics in the teaching profession, where half of all beginners quit within five years.) Taking care of kids is an important job. Taking care of ourselves is an important part of that job. My most regrettable moments as a teacher have always happened on days when lack of sleep combined with an emotional rubber band stretched to its breaking point. Parents, too, are faced with a non-stop series of judgment calls best made by well-rested, reasonably sane adults. Work hard, but also forgive yourself for your mistakes and get some rest when you can. Take it from a teacher: You’re doing this for the kids.