Like most classroom educators, I started teaching before I had children of my own. Those first few years are interesting to look back on for two reasons. First, I was only a few years older than my students and I felt (and acted) like an older brother to them. I offered advice rather than giving orders, and I immersed myself in the culture of prepubescence.
The second reason that I chuckle when I think about those years is that I also believed that I understood parenting. I thought that I could tell which parents were good at raising children, and which were not. I privately kept a tally of the kids whose issues in school clearly stemmed from lack of sufficient parenting. I had a personal Hall of Fame for those parents whose children’s proficiency and maturity demonstrated their own excellence.
What a difference a couple of kids makes, right? As my own children have grown closer in age to the middle schoolers I teach, I have become more and more aware of the natural range of personalities/skills/challenges that kids can have–many of which have little or nothing to do with the way we raise them. Kids have unique quirks that make siblings different from each other even when they are brought up in the same household.
I also treat students differently now, acknowledging that firm guidelines (well, firmer) are appreciated and needed for all students. I still provide choice, but every sandbox I offer has a boundary. Every hands-on exploration in class begins with a clear safety message. I have much more of a “parent” mindset than an “older brother” one.
And, perhaps because I teach only middle school boys, this mindset has me practicing fatherhood in new ways. Most of my students have active dads at home, so I am not playing the part of primary male role model. My impact on their lives is much more complex and nuanced.
I make them laugh. I make them think about the world around them. I make them ask questions. I give them opportunities to explore things with their hands and their minds that many have never seen before. The technology I am lucky enough to have in my classroom exposes them to some of the tools of the modern workplace. My Science Olympiad course provides engineering and tinkering experience.
I let them fail and then help them pick up the pieces. I answer their questions, but just as often, I ask them more questions. I try to take them out of their comfort zones, while making them responsible for their own success. I frequently reflect on their learning and try to get them to do the same.
The learning that I guide is far less important than what these boys get on a daily basis at home. Being a father means being one of your son’s first and best teachers. But, what a decade of parenting and teaching has taught me is that raising a child does require the proverbial village and fatherhood can not be a one-man job.