I was a young mother. I had my eldest son a few months after turning 21. Having dropped out of college to do so, I was not my school district’s version of an “ideal graduate” and having never taken a childcare class in high school, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Some people are blessed with amazing parents who model what parenting should look like, and some of us struggle to figure out how we can recreate a household that looks nothing like our childhood experience. I had no modeling, no coaching, no mentor to guide me through raising a human and I screwed up A LOT. I would find myself falling back into patterns that my mother had shown me only to need to self-correct and try again. I was constantly learning through failure, and while we sensationalize failure as something to strive for so we can learn, constantly learning through failure and never being shown the right way first is exhausting. It can make you bitter if you’re not careful. It’s so much harder to step into what you know to be right when falling back on what you’ve been taught would be so much easier.
I’d go to my kids’ school and feel so out of place. I was not only young but I looked like a baby which was a double whammy for the way I felt people looked at me. I wasn’t always put together like the other parents – by that time having multiple kids and going to college full-time while working part-time was wearing on me – and I would watch the room moms talk in the hallways and felt like I didn’t belong. Mom guilt was a constant because my kids didn’t always have the elaborately decorated cupcakes (a few times I forgot cupcakes at all) for their birthdays and there were days where I forgot to put money in their lunch accounts and they went negative. When my kids were little I had nightmares that my estranged mother would kidnap them from school so I would make sure I would show up early to pick them up. It made cupcakes and lunch accounts seem just a little less important. But, there were moments that I recognized that I was doing better than I had been taught and I needed that as a lifeline to keep going when the world seemed to be telling me I could be doing more.
As a teacher I brought the memories of these days into the classroom with me. One shift I’ve noticed with the pandemic is the relationships with parents. I’ve heard some teachers say that communication has improved and relationships have been better because they have made that one of their missions – but more often I’ve heard people say how difficult it is to see into the lives of their students and the things that happen in their homes. How parents don’t understand online learning and value education right now. And while I’ve always been a proponent of believing that people are doing the best they can at any given moment, I think that sometimes we are judging people through the lens of a teacher instead of the lens of a human. What I’d like for this blog to do is to challenge the way you’re viewing your kids’ parents. After all, we are one team trying to do what’s best for children and we need all the strategies we can to get on the same page.
We seem to have this invisible high bar for parents to reach. When I work with districts on starting online programs (pre-pandemic – seems a bit yesterday’s news now) one piece that I have repeatedly advocated for is setting parent norms. Not rules, but norms – how you would like the collaboration to work between parent and teacher for the sake of the student. Not only do these help set a foundational understanding for what will be happening in the classroom, but they also provide parents with how you see the collaboration working in case they were missing that information in the first place. If their parents didn’t do it, they may not know to do it either. We understand school. We know, as teachers, what is supposed to happen. For parents, they haven’t always been taught how to do that from the parental role.
Let’s face it, we have parents who hated school themselves and that doesn’t automatically go away when they have their own children in an educational setting. We have parents who are struggling their way through being a parent because they were never shown how to be one to begin with. And for some of them, they are doing better than they were taught in the first place and that is a win. Imagine working hard to be a better parent than you were taught only to be made to feel like you still never belong because you’re not doing it “right”? This is the ultimate test of our empathy. As professionals we know that parental involvement and support is one of the top predictors of student success. It can be frustrating when we know that parents aren’t meeting the bar we have set, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t working hard to be better parents than they were taught.
When we place our own values on other people without knowing their background or experience, we are potentially expecting people to be different people than they were ever given the chance to be. Can these parents learn what we deem as the “right way” to parent? Yes. But in saying that you are also assuming that they haven’t already done work on their own that you just don’t see because you didn’t see what they had to start with. In my years of teaching I never had a parent complaint about me either to my face or to my administrator. This was partially because I employed as much empathy as possible. I never taught people how to parent, but I did teach them what a supportive classroom community meant. And sometimes it’ll go a long way just helping “that parent” feel like they belong and that you understand that they’re doing the best they know how to do.