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Parenting and Pedagogy

Parenting and Pedagogy

October 6, 2008
(Also appears in Mama PhD)

"Dr. K." asks: As an incipient Mama Ph.D., I’d like to know how parenthood affects your pedagogy. If anyone has had a before- and after-baby teaching career, aside from issues like daycare and fatigue, I’d be grateful if you could tell me how it changes a person as a teacher.

Awesome question. The most immediate effect, I think, is that I am *much* more aware of, and sensitive to, the needs and challenges of students with children of their own. Those "no cell phones in class" statements on the syllabus? I bring mine in, and leave it on, in case my son's school needs to call, and I know that some of my students are in the same boat. And for all I know, other students have reasons for leaving their phones on too. So instead of "no phones," I tell them, turn your ringers down and if you have to answer the phone, please step out of the room while you do so. Missing class because of sickness or babysitting problems? It happens. Here's the work you missed; please check with a friend to look at their notes.

It also, I think, makes me better at thinking about my students' educational backgrounds, the gaps they may or may not have, and the fact that they have different learning styles. My son? Bright, believes everything's negotiable, and in the wrong school environment might very well be labelled a "behavior problem." Other kids in his class, where I've done some volunteering? I can see them getting discouraged at the age of six, getting the message that they're "not good at school," checking out to protect their egos.

So when I have students of my own who act up or seem disengaged, I treat them much the same way I treat my son, the way I want his teachers to treat him. That is, I give those students -- privately, so as not to embarrass them -- very clear instructions about why their behavior is a problem, what they need to do differently, and why.

I don't just leave the students who never show up to class to fail: when they do wander in, I go up to their desks and crouch down on their level, just like with a little kid. I quietly and sympathetically ask them if there's a reason they've been missing class, and explain as non-confrontationally as possible why doing so is a problem, where they stand, and what they need to do -- email me if they must miss a class, attend more often, turn in their journals, turn in written work on time, whatever -- in order to pass the class.

The students with the clownish attitudes and constant jokes get laughs and some of the attention they crave, while again getting -- privately -- a request to please dial it down a little so as not to distract the class. The student with a chip on his shoulder gets asked sympathetically if there's something about the class that's bugging him.

God knows I have my moments where I say, privately and sometimes even to students, that I am not their mother, and it isn't my job to accept their excuses or make exceptions for them. But then again, being a good parent doesn't mean accepting excuses or making exceptions either. It does mean setting clear expectations, assuming that children have reasons for what they do (even when it's infuriating), and trying to think empathetically about how to provide the conditions they need to learn.

I can't make sure my students get enough sleep or eat breakfast. But I can make sure that I don't act impatient when they don't know things no one has taught them yet, that I don't take irritating behavior personally, and that I listen to what they say even when it's something I've heard a hundred times before. It really does seem to help get even the most reluctant students more engaged with the class.

And I also make sure that at the end of the day, the "kids" and "kid concerns" get put to bed, so that Mama can have a little bit of grownup time to relax before she has to go do it all over again tomorrow.

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