Anne Guarnera is a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Virginia. You can find her discussing teaching and learning on Twitter as @aguarnera and learn more about her work on her website. Felix Guarnera is eight weeks old and contributed to this article by sleeping through the writing of it.
With the birth of my second son earlier this semester, I’ve re-entered a season of intense parenting—well, intense life, to be honest. Writing the last chapter of my dissertation, parenting two boys under three, and looking for a post-PhD job all at the same time is not a task for the faint of heart. It’s not a mere logistical challenge, but an emotional one as well. At the same time that our family is adjusting to the arrival of its newest member, I’m experiencing the very significant and personal transition of finishing my graduate career. I’m also looking ahead to the future, though it’s still uncertain at this point what it will hold.
One unexpected benefit of this time, however, has been the opportunity to reflect upon how the past seven years of graduate school have shaped me. Indeed, entering the job market has required this kind of critical reflection, as writing cover letters has forced me to articulate my future research plans and how they inform my teaching (and vice versa). There’s something else that I’ve been thinking about, though—something that I can’t include in any cover letter, but that is equally significant, and that’s how my experience of classroom teaching has shaped me as an individual and more directly, as a parent.
And now, GradHackers, here is my official disclaimer: I’m going to use the rest of this space to discuss a few ways that my teaching philosophy has informed my parenting and vice versa—call it an example of “parenting in public.” I am an expert in neither of these things; I’ve read a lot of theory on both and I’m muddling my way through with the limited experience that I have. So don’t take this as an advice column. Instead, I would love it if you would join with me in thinking about how your graduate training has shaped you as an individual. Go beyond the question “What do you research?” to think about how your study and teaching have formed your very person. How have they changed (or reinforced) what you love? The rituals and practices of your life? Your way of relating to others? These are some of the questions that I’m working through, and I’d love some company on the journey. (End disclaimer).
Anyway, as I’ve thought about this subject, I have found that my parenting philosophy and my pedagogy are mutually reinforcing—that is, the helpful principles of one are often applicable to the other. Here are a few that I’ve found true in both my role as a teacher and as a parent:
1. Have high but reasonable expectations and cheerfully enforce them. There is a reason why my two-year-old has to pick up his own toys at the end of the day. Likewise, there is a reason why I run a flipped classroom and expect my students to memorize their vocabulary words before we meet to practice them. At the beginning of the semester, I try to be very explicit about my expectations with my students, both in my syllabus and in the conversations that we have during our first few class meetings. Once I ensure that my expectations are appropriate and understood, I let go of any personal attachment that I have to them. I enforce the standard as cheerfully and matter-of-factly as possible—as a mutually agreed upon principle, rather than a personal preference up for negotiation. This is WAY harder with my toddler than with my mostly compliant and helpful undergraduates, so I try to channel my “teaching self” when I’m in situations where it feels like my son is testing my limits. That helps me stay dispassionate when I am overseeing—against great resistance—the nightly teeth brushing.
2. Prepare with a plan, but expect that you won’t stick to it. I am a planner by nature, and both parenting and being a graduate student (and doing the two together) have refined that skill in me to the nth degree. I swear by time blocking and my Planner Pad, and when things are really tight, the Pomodoro technique, to get things done. But there are always, ALWAYS contingencies, especially with young children. Just last week, for example, I brought both kids with me to a conference a few hours from home, but we all got sick and my newborn landed in the ER. With all the doctors’ visits, I didn’t attend a single conference session. So when I’m planning my teaching, which can be similarly unpredictable, I try to build in margin to accommodate the unforeseen. I mentally bookmark which parts of my lesson plans to cut if students need more time with a particular concept, I designate flexible review days at the end of the semester, and if necessary, I’ll hold extra office hours to help students work through tricky subjects. Knowing that all of these are planned in advance gives me the flexibility to teach in consideration of my students’ needs and not feel overly beholden to the schedule that I developed before even meeting them.
3. Play to your strengths (and work to develop your weaknesses). Reading great books, playing sports, and cooking good food are some of my chief pleasures in life, and I am enthusiastic about helping my sons develop an appreciation for these things. At this point, our family life revolves around these activities, so I try not to compare myself to the moms who have different gifts. Doing elaborate crafts and coordinating toddler fashion? Wonderful, but not my thing. Likewise, in the classroom, I’ve embraced my teaching style and plan activities that reflect my personality and values. While I do believe that the best teachers know how to beg, borrow, and steal ideas from others, I also recognize that not every lesson will work well coming from me and I ditch those activities that I don’t feel comfortable with. That said, we always have room to grow as both parents and educators. Given that fact, this year I’ve made two resolutions for self-improvement: first, to make a fire engine birthday cake for my son’s third birthday party, and second, to improve on my ability to moderate politically charged conversations in the classroom.
How about you—what parts of your life has your graduate school experience influenced? How has it helped you to articulate your core values and shaped the daily practices that you embrace?
[Photo of Felix by Bria Kampen of Chickadee Photography]
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