teach your children well

Not too long ago, a student I have taught for three out his almost-four-year high school career said to me, “Ms. Lavelle, didn’t you have higher aspirations than becoming a teacher?”

I put down the papers I had been collecting and looked at him.  I couldn’t find the words.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t answer the question.  It was that I couldn’t believe he had asked it.  It was clear to me that he thought of me as a disappointment, as someone who had, somehow, fallen short.

It’s true:  I never intended to be a high school teacher, perhaps because I saw how tirelessly my mother had worked.  And, in certain social circles, when I’m asked what I do, I respond with, “I’m just a teacher.”  Because somehow, in our great history, we decided that teaching is a profession that doesn’t warrant the same respect as other professions.  I think the motto goes something like this:  He who can, does.  He who can’t, teaches.   (Really, George Bernard Shaw?  Really?  From this moment on, I’m swearing off Pygmalion.)

Sure, I could blame politicans and legislators, NCLB and high-stakes testing.  But the root of the problem hits much closer to home, whether we care to admit it or not.  I mean, my own father winced (not quite cringed) when I mentioned that I was considering the idea of becoming a teacher.  And if we’re not willing to teach our children to respect the profession, then we shouldn’t expect things to change any time soon.

We wait in an examination room with an ailing toddler.  In walks a woman dressed in a white coat or scrubs, wearing a stethoscope around her neck.  We believe she’s a doctor.  Or we get rear-ended on Highway 98, and a man shows up wearing a blue uniform with shiney boots and a gun on his hip; we assume he’s a police officer.

But when a woman stands with a textbook at the front of her classroom (that she, most likely, decorated entirely with her own money), we need more evidence.  We need to be convinced.  This seems strange, considering that most young pupils love their teachers, most young pupils fully trust their teachers.  They haven’t yet learned to be cynical.

In August of this year, I attended Parent Night at my daughter’s elementary school.  We sat in miniature desks as the teacher introduced herself and explained her expectations for the year.  I squirmed in my seat as she addressed a barrage of raised hands, as she was pushed into describing (defending) her teaching practices.  I chewed on my fingernails, wishing I could jump in front of her to deflect the bullets, to tell these all-knowing parents they had no idea how good they had it.  I wanted to remind them that it was pushing nine o’clock at night, and she had been there since shortly after six that morning. (A teacher friend once told me, “Teaching is the only profession where, when you work overtime, you actually get paid less.”)

They didn’t smile back at her when she smiled; the corners of their mouths forced themselves downward.  Their brows furrowed with skepticism.  This woman that stood before her Smartboard looked like a teacher, but was she one?  A real one?

I’ve had similar experiences at our Back to School night during the first week of classes each year.  More than once, I’ve stood at that podium, undergoing a kind of  interrogation concerning my mixed-abilty sophomore class:  How do you propose you’re going to teach honors and regular simultaneously?  (Ha!  As if I had anything to with scheduling.)  Or, concerning my Advanced Placement class:  What has been your passing rate on the AP Exam since you’ve taught here? And how many years have you taught AP? 

And, more than once, other parents have felt the need to come to my defense.  One even got up out of her seat, saying, “Ms. Lavelle has taught all three of my kids; she knows what she’s doing.”

But that’s not my point.  My point is this:  I understand that there are bad teachers, just like there are bad doctors, bad cops and bad directors of the CIA.  And, of course, if your child has been mistreated, that situation should certainly be addressed. But we’re not all bad.  We’re not all out to get you (or your kids).  Please don’t sit in a parent conference and verbally abuse and berate us when you’ve been willing only to hear one side of the story.

Because, truly, there’s only so much we can do.  Education is not only a teacher’s job; it’s a parent’s job, too.  Did you know that we assign reading and your kids don’t do it?  (You should have known it was assigned because we posted it on Edline.)  And the zero they received on that quiz (which you knew of because we post EVERY grade for EVERY assignment on Edline) was because they hadn’t read?  If you asked them first, they might have told you that.  But instead, you emailed me.  You assumed that I had done something wrong.

Did you know that, during homeroom, they copy each other’s homework and call it “teamwork?” That they call it “sharing?”

Did you know that while I’m teaching, they have their phones out on their desks, and they’re busy tweeting?  (They’re not on Facebook anymore because you are.  You might want to think about following them on Twitter.)  And then they ask me to explain, again, what I’ve already explained.  Twice.

Did you know that, even though they’ve disrupted my class, I’ve written them glowing college recommendations?  That I’ve spent my evenings revising multiple drafts of their college essays?

I never disrespected a teacher because my mother was one.  And I’m almost certain that my daughter will never disrespect a teacher because I’m one.  I just hope she doesn’t want to become one. Not because it’s not a high aspiration (it is), but because I don’t want her to work that hard only to be abused by the very people she’s working for.

Parents and teachers should be on the same side.  We should want the same thing.  Why is the divide so deep and so wide?

this is ground control to major mom

I’m not a helicopter parent.  I’m a spaceship parent. 

And I’ve discovered that this is the very reason I can’t seem to make myself fit in with the other first-grade moms when, on occasion, I visit my daughter’s classroom.  I’m pretty sure they think I practice some form of “detached parenting.”

This was first pointed out to me, rather blatantly, when I opened the door to my daughter’s pre-kindergarten class on the afternoon of her end-of-the-year party.  My husband and I had been sharing a car for months at that point (though we worked in two different cities) because the Jeep was waiting for its refurbished engine, and so I had asked a colleague for a ride.  I had arrived just a few minutes late, and my then-four-year-old was crouched by the window, searching for something outside.  She jumped up when she saw me, yelling, “I told them you were coming,” as she ran at me across the classroom.

I told them you were coming.  And they hadn’t believed her.

It was then that I learned I was the mom who didn’t show up enough.

And two years later, nothing has changed.  I feel the sideways glances and I know they’re thinking, “Oh. That must be Georgia’s mother.”  I see the moms of two of her classmates at the splash park downtown in the summer and so I do what I think I’m supposed to and make an attempt at small talk (I really hate small talk). They entertain my questions with terse replies, and when I walk away, they continue the conversation I (clearly) interrupted.

I’ve tried.  I promise, I’ve tried.  Hell, I joined the PTO Board, for chrissakes.  But when I showed up to the first meeting, I was egregiously underdressed in my jeans and flip-flops, and so I stood by myself in the kitchen, drinking a beer, and thinking that I should have chosen the wine or rum punch.  Yep, probably the pretty, sherbet-y rum punch.  And then I saw a group of moms from Georgia’s class, so I decided to join them.  I asked questions that I thought were harmless, small talk questions, but quickly came to the realization that I was the only mom who didn’t know the names of every student in the class.  That I was the only mom who didn’t know that Alex was the “new kid.”  That I had no idea the Assistant Principal had left abruptly and had already been replaced (I got some wide-eyed looks for that one).  And when the conversation turned to how many spelling words the kids were supposed to use in their sentences this week (all twelve? only five?), I had to turn away.  Because what I wanted to say was, “Why don’t you just ask your son?”

It’s not that I’m detached. It’s just that I feel like her schooling is her thing.  Not mine.

But I can’t help thinking that if everyone else is a helicopter, then the spaceship has to be wrong.  And, sometimes, I feel that parenting is all about proving to everyone else that what we’re doing is right, about measuring ourselves against others, and using our kids to do that.  So at the end-of-the-year party for kindergarten, when no one was really talking to me (except for the lesbian couple who, I’m sure, got sideways glances, too), I busied myself with my toddler and my three-year-old (and, come on, even though I didn’t have a babysitter, part of the reason I wanted them there was so that I could say, “Look! My hands are full!  I can’t be here all of the time!”).  But I know all of those other moms were looking at me as my daughter won every award, certificate, or trophy given.  Perfect attendance.  Citizenship.  Perfect score on her standardized math test. I tried not to react.  But inside, I was saying, “See?  See?  I don’t hover, and I’m still a good mom!”

And that was just plain stupid.  Because my daughter was the one who won those awards. Not me.

What’s good to know, I think, is that we’re all a little neurotic.  And none of us knows what we’re doing.  What we do know is that there’s more than one way to do this.

I can’t be the helicopter; I can’t drop into her classroom whenever I want because I have this job that I have to go to.  And, fortunately or unfortunately, my work hours are inflexible and coincide with my her school hours.  I can’t be in her classroom all day because I have to be in mine.  (Although, sometimes I’m pretty sure my students wouldn’t notice if I wasn’t there.  And they’d probably even stay in their seats that day.)

So I don’t always know what she’s doing at school.  I don’t always know exactly what she’s learning.  I don’t always know exactly how she’s behaving.  And I have to be okay with that, because I make myself crazy enough with everything else.  When she does well, how do I know how much praise is too much?  How do I know how much praise is too little?  How do I show her that I’m proud without making her think that hard work is something she’s supposed to be rewarded for and not an expectation?

How do I know if I want her screened for the accelerated academy?  And then, if she is screened, what if she doesn’t get in?  What if she gets in and doesn’t succeed?  What if she feels like I’m pushing her to be one of those kids?  What if, what if, what if . . .

I know this:  I have to trust my child.  I don’t need to be in the classroom, criticizing the teacher (and, trust me, it’s so easy to criticize a teacher when you’re not a teacher).  I have to believe that my daughter will tell me if something is wrong.  And I have to believe that she will make good choices.  And, if she doesn’t, well, then she’ll learn something from that, too.

Because, really, my goal as a parent is not to raise the smartest kid with the highest test scores.  There will always be someone smarter, anyway.  Instead, I’d like to raise a kid who’s confident enough to be independent, who feels good about who she is. I want to raise a kid who practices tolerance, who doesn’t talk badly about the boy with two moms.  I want to raise a kid whose heart stays big enough to house compassion.

Even if it means the other moms think I’m lost in space.