How Motherhood Changed The Way I Would Teach

by Sarah Harris
Originally Published: 
An elementary teacher sitting at the desk while a kid writes something on a blackboard behind her

Once upon a time, before my days were filled with Lego-building, fort-constructing, and singing (loudly and off-key) to Taylor Swift in the kitchen with my kids, I was a teacher. Back then, my days were full of reading groups, writing workshops, math stations, and singing (loudly and off-key) to Dr. Jean and Friends on the Circle Rug with “my” kids.

I taught kindergarten and I loved every minute of it. Though I was young and naive and full of idealism and unrealistic expectations, I was a great teacher. I didn’t have children of my own, so I was able to pour everything I had into my classroom, my lesson plans, and my students. As much as I thought I knew it all, though, if I were to return to my classroom, I have no doubt that I’d be a better teacher today than I ever was back then.

I’m a mom. I see school differently now; through my kids’ eyes and through the eyes of my former students’ parents, who sent their kindergartners to me each day. If I were to return to my classroom, I might not be a better teacher in terms of lesson planning or instruction, but I would see each of my students for who they truly were: someone’s baby. And that would make all the difference.

If I were a teacher now, here’s what I would change.

I would tell my students’ parents everything. When I was a teacher, I sent my kindergartners home with a newsletter each Friday. At the bottom of the page was a reminder: “Call or e-mail me anytime!” I felt this was more than sufficient communication from a teacher. I was wrong.

As a parent, school sometimes feels like a complete mystery to me. I greet my kids at the door with the Third Degree: What did you do at Choice Time? Who did you eat lunch with? Who did you play with on the playground? What did you read at reading workshop? Did you finish that story in your Writing Journal you were working on? Were you too hot? Too cold? Just right?

If I were a teacher now, I’d send out a daily email with a few highlights from the day, including Conversation Starters to help get kids talking about their day. I’d have a facebook group for the parents to have a place to get to know one another so that friendships among their kids could be cultivated out of the classroom. I’d text pictures and videos to the parents (with their consent, of course) so they could see their babies hard at work and play throughout the day.

I would recognize that little things can seem big to little kids. I knew this as a teacher, but I didn’t understand it until I was a Mommy. My kids have come home from school before, having carried around hurt feelings all day long. I have wished that I could have popped into their classroom for a quick, reassuring hug and a “we can fix this” pep talk.

I’m sure there were many times, as a teacher, that I brushed off a student’s worry, hurt feelings, or perceived injustice as “no big deal.” In the grand scheme of my day as a Kindergarten Teacher, if no one was lost or injured, I can imagine that I may have treated their playground squabble as petty or insignificant. “You’ll be okay. Moving on to Math Centers, friends! We have lots to learn this week!”

Teachers can’t be everywhere. They can’t see everything. But if I was a teacher today, I would keep my eyes and ears wide open. I would treat my students’ concerns and hurt feelings with respect. I would be on the lookout for the kids who might be trying really hard to keep a brave face on, and I would ask them what I could do to help. And I’d give lots of quick, reassuring hugs and “we can fix this” pep talks.

I would make sure that my students wash their hands. This one seems obvious now, but when I was a teacher, I didn’t always make my kids wash their hands when they came in from the playground. We almost always washed hands before snack and lunch, of course, but I’ll admit to giving them a squirt of hand sanitizer on days when we were running late. As a mom, I’ve seen how filthy my kids hands get in our own home and I can only imagine how filthy they can get at school. Actually, I don’t want to imagine it. [shudder]

I would make sure my students ate their lunches, or at least had a chance to. When I was a teacher, I’d drop my kids off in the cafeteria with the Lunchroom Aides and pick them up a quick 25 minutes later (sometimes after even getting a bite to eat, myself!). I never looked at or asked what was left in their lunch boxes or on their trays.

I can’t tell you how many times my own kiddo has come home from school with a full lunchbox saying that he “didn’t have time” to eat. The lunch room is a busy, noisy place; the lights are periodically flicked off and on and the Lunchroom Aides randomly call for the students to lower their volume. Sometimes it’s just hard to eat when that kind of distracting environment is giving a sensitive kid a nervous tummy.

If I were a teacher today, I’d peek in the cafeteria a minute or two early and see if anyone had skipped their meal. If possible, I’d offer them a chance to finish their lunches when we got back to the classroom. At the very least, I’d make sure to get my kids to lunch on time so they would have the full lunch period to eat.

I would have compassion without judgement for my students’ families. When I was a teacher, my students brought a lot of baggage with them from home into our classroom. My school was in an urban, low socioeconomic community, and many of my students’ parents were stressed beyond belief. My kids had single parents, parents who worked multiple jobs, parents who were in-between housing, parents who wanted to be more involved in school but who were intimidated to come to meetings and programs due to language barriers. My kids were food-insecure and many had unpredictable schedules, routines, and living arrangements. My kids were over-tired. My kids didn’t play outside after school because it wasn’t safe. My kids, like their parents, were stressed beyond belief. Is it any wonder that they acted out behaviorally in school? Is it any wonder that their parents could not come in for Parent Workshops? Is it any wonder that their parents, already pushed to their limits, would sigh and sound disinterested when I called them about a missing homework folder or field trip permission slip?

I sometimes had terrible thoughts about these parents: That they didn’t value their children’s education, they didn’t care about their children’s health and well-being, they weren’t good parents.

Now that I’m a parent, I know just how fucking hard this job is…and I have it pretty easy. No, I have it really easy. I can’t imagine my own children having to live in some of the environments that my students’ lived in and I can not imagine being a parent under those conditions. In retrospect, I have nothing but respect and admiration for the parents who, despite all the challenges they faced, were able to send their children to school every day and show up for parent-teacher conferences once or twice a year.

I would keep my promises. Kids have amazing memories and even little kids have strict senses of fairness and justice. I learned this as a teacher, but again, I didn’t truly understand it until I had children of my own. You can not make empty promises to kids or they will remember and they will feel wronged when you do not hold up your end of the bargain. As a parent, this seems obvious…you simply do not tell your kids that you’re going to do something and fail to follow through. It’s Parenting 101.

If I were a teacher today, if I told a student that he and his friends could perform their play for the class, or promised a child she could bring something special in to share, or agreed that “Yes, Anton, on Monday it will be your turn to use the Scientist’s Laboratory center,” I’d damn well put it on my calendar and make sure that I kept my promise.

Don’t get me wrong, I know firsthand that teaching is one of the most difficult, demanding, and exhausting jobs on the planet. I’m not criticizing teachers who don’t do these things regularly because I remember how busy my days in kindergarten were and how fast they flew by. Surely, not every day will be perfect and surely, mistakes will be made, opportunities will be missed. I also know, though, that each one of those students in my classes were someone’s baby. And, if I were a teacher today, I’d treat those sweet babies like I’d want someone to treat mine.

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