Many teachers out there are beginning to get that mid-July pit in their stomachs--mixed emotions about an impending school year. The reasons are deep and varied but, if I had to bet, I'd lay down almost all my money that "I dread actually working with students" is not anywhere near the top, if even on the list at all (and, if it is, for their sake and your own, go find something that makes you happy).
A vast majority of the time, any apprehension we feel has very little, if anything, to do with the kids. Many of us are moms and missing our own kiddos as we return to work to care for others' is definitely up there on the list. An increasing work load/class size to juggle (with decreased time in which to juggle it) is probably up there, too, depending on the circumstances where you teach. Losing that work/life balance you begin to restore over break is tough also because, while many of us feel grateful to have the time to catch up on other aspects of our lives for two months, the pendulum swings SO far in the opposite direction the other ten months--it's kind of like watching a hurricane brew off the coast, knowing it will be chaotic when it rolls in.
But here's another truth we often don't talk about: after working in education since 2005 in a diverse array of capacities, settings, grade levels, and populations, one thing that's been a consistent fear for teachers as a new school year approaches is the difficulty level of the parents they'll get more than the students they will be working with.
Yes, I said it--sometimes the toughest part of our job is "the parents".
I put "the parents" in quotes because it's hard to label them as a group outside of myself, given that I am one. But I'm also a teacher and that gives me a unique insight and appreciation for the difficulties we face, which of course influences the way I interact with my son's teachers. It's kind of like that friend of yours who used to be a waitress--best tipper ever. Why? Because she gets it.
And I can tell you after over a decade teaching that many parents, former teachers or not, DO get it and they're a pleasure to work with. They get not just the load teachers have on their plates, but they get how to parent well, which is always something we want for our students. But it's just like anything else--a few rotten apples can spoil the bunch; even just one difficult, high-maintenance parent can dramatically affect your work-life satisfaction.
This raises the question: what is it exactly that makes a parent a "difficult" one? I gave this question some thought, even talked with a few teacher-friends of mine, and an interesting theme began to emerge: CONNECTION...the right amount, too much, or lack thereof. When I looked across my and my colleague's experiences with "difficult" vs. "desirable" parents, it became evident that you could lump these characteristics into three categories that lie on a spectrum. I made this sketch below using the notes I had recorded.
The family in the middle represents the characteristics of parents who tend to not necessarily be desirable because they're just "easy to work with", but because there seems to be an undercurrent of mutual respect that runs in a triangular fashion among parents, teacher, and child. The child's NEEDS (love, belonging, necessities) seem to trump his/her wants (things) as the primary focus. They hold their child accountable for his/her actions rather than deflect blame elsewhere or make excuses. While they may be busy and have full working lives, they make it clear to the child when in his/her presence that they are present and attentive because they get that CONNECTION IS KEY. They care more about how their child is treating others and their progress as whole, well-rounded people than just test scores and report card grades. They get the value of productive struggle and understand, usually from their own lives, that failures can be our greatest learning experiences.
This description is not to suggest that parents should be all of these ways at all times--if that's the case, I'm falling really short most days! This is simply a combination of the characteristics I've observed in families where children seem to be the most well-rounded overall and there's a healthy parent/teacher relationship of mutual respect--the families that get that we're on the same team with one common interest: their child.
The families on the right and left represent traits that I and some of my colleagues have observed in what seem to be overly-connected and disconnected families, respectively. What I mean by "overly-connected" is the parent who is overly involved and tries to control or micromanage nearly every detail of the child's life. What happens when we feel micromanaged? Older children will often rebel in an effort to exercise his/her independence and freedom of choice. However, especially in younger children, this tends to manifest as anxiety. These parents are so fearful of their children experiencing struggle or failure that it's avoided at all costs; what they fail to realize, of course, is that they are denying their child valuable opportunities to learn through those mistakes. Of course, a parent's poor boundaries with his/her child will mean poor boundaries with you, the teacher, as well. It often means having to set your own clear boundaries around acceptable hours for and length of communications and means working harder to empower the child to exert his/her independence.
Finally, there's the type of parenting I see popping up more and more these days: what I refer to as "dystracted" parenting. I purposely misspell it because I'm not simply talking about a parent on the phone too much, it's a dysfunctional level of distraction that some parents seem to have with technology, usually around their work due to the 24/7 nature of messaging via smartphones. But it can also come in the form of distracting their kids with technology so that they may get more done or avoid the harder parts of parenting. While I don't mean to imply that this is comparable to neglect in the form of abuse, I use the term "the new neglect" because I don't think the end result of this kind of parent-child interaction will prove to be much different than the way in which we traditionally think of neglect--to deny the child basic needs, care, or supervision--in other words, a lack of connection.
These are the children who appear highly attended to but are starving for REAL connection. They're often the ones dropped off at 6:30am for morning care and not picked up until 6:30pm and, after having hadn't seen Mom or Dad in twelve hours, are greeted by them while on the phone. They're the parents who may appear to be there in physical form but are mentally checked out--not present. And what I've found in conferences with these parents is that they often deflect blame for their child's misbehavior or poor grades onto others (i.e. "well, are you challenging them?" "well what did Johnny do first to make him act out?" and so on). My hunch is that this is a way of projecting their own guilt and fears onto others, of trying to avoid facing the truth.
When they do make time for their children, these parents tend to feign connection with "things"...buying the newest, latest toy or gadget which, of course, results in only temporary happiness until the child wants the next thing (which is really just an attempt at connecting). What comes through loud and clear to these kids is the message "we avoid issues and problems by staying busy" or, in worse cases, "I'm too busy for you" or "my career is more important than you".
By referring to these "dystracted" family dynamics as the "new neglect", I'm not trying to suggest this situation is worse than truly neglecting the basic needs of your child, but when a child appears externally to be fine--sometimes more than fine--but, on the inside, is starving for connection, being ignored, and emotionally hurting, then I would say it's a more insidious form of neglect than the kind we can easily spot from the outside.
Listen, I want to be really clear that I think you can work hard and achieve and STILL be a connected, engaged parent--I've seen it firsthand in many families I had the pleasure of working with. I'm not implying that a long day for your child in and of itself means you're neglecting your child. More importantly is how you show up when you ARE around. There is a way to hustle and still make your children feel loved and genuinely cared for. It's about making what time you DO have into connected, face-to-face time, having conversations that matter.
None of us are perfect and I think sometimes, rather than neatly fit into one category, our parenting can be fluid--we feel ourselves being too overbearing, so we step back a bit. Or we're really connected in a great way and then a life event happens that knocks us down and, for a period, we find ourselves completely unengaged with our kids. The key I guess is just staying aware and adjusting.
One of the greatest challenges with teaching is that we, to some extent, are responsible for fixing things we didn't break; for righting situations that have been wrong for some time in a matter of months. All we can worry about is the part that's within our control. What I would say to the parents on the helicopter end is that the only gift we'll ever want from you as teachers is your trust--your trust in us as professionals that we will do our job as best we can and take great care of your child. And, to the "dystracted" parents who we won't get to engage with as much as we'd like, just please remember how fleeting these years are. Make this the school year of sticking to small commitments like showing up for at least one conference, making eye contact when you first see your child after a long day, putting the call through to voicemail so he can finish his story uninterrupted--the small gestures that remind our kids how much they matter to us.
And, to my fellow teachers, remember no matter where the parents you'll get this year fall on the spectrum, the only part that's within our control is doing the best we can in the hours we have them to show them what a healthy level of connection looks like.
I'm Krissy & I'm so thankful you're here. Teacher-Mom life is rewarding but it's tough--we need fuel (& each other) to keep going. I hope this is a place you can go that feels like caffeine for the soul--uplifting & highly addictive ;) Check out the categories below and, if you like what you read, subscribe to make sure you always have good Sunday morning reading to go with your coffee :)