As parents we often like to believe that we are the sole arbiters of our children’s lives but the reality is that it does take a village to accompany our young from the time that they are babies until they become adults. Even those who choose homeschooling inevitably must allow the influences of others to affect their youngsters. It’s a difficult situation for parents and takes a dramatic leap of faith and a heap of wisdom to navigate successfully. The trick is in knowing when to protect a child and when to let him/her get hurt. Anyone who has ever tried that knows that it is a daunting task.
Some situations are clearcut. It would be negligent to knowingly leave a child in the care of an abusive person. In other cases it may be vastly more difficult to know the best course of action. When a child is anxious and wants to stay home from school without really being sick we wonder what is the right thing to do. We worry and we fret over and over again about our parenting skills and about the strangers that our children encounter. We consider that outside influences may undo the good work that we have done with them. We hear horror stories from other parents. We don’t know whether to be helicopters or free rangers. Parenting is so very hard especially once we accompany our kids to their first day of school and leave them for hours with people that we only minimally know.
I liken growing up to learning how to ride a bicycle. Webegin with training wheels. At some point we have to lose those extra appendages no matter how great they make us feel. When those safety features are gone we spend time falling down, skinning our knees, experiencing mild pain. We don’t want to walk away from the challenge but we also don’t want to get hurt. We have to keep at it until we master the techniques of balancing and peddling and steering. It’s a great deal to do all at once. We mustn’t compare ourselves to others for there will be those who take only a brief period of time to become expert and others who seem destined to cling to those helpful third wheels. We have to go at our own pace and maintain our confidence in ourselves. With determination eventually we will get the job done. Our parents can’t do it for us. They may run along side of us for a time but eventually they must let go. If we fall they must watch our knees turn bloody and then encourage us to try again. Once we manage to stay upright on our own those same parents must be willing to watch us ride away. They might set limits on how far we may go in the beginning but slowly and surely those boundaries must widen. In our travels we will meet many different people and see many different things. With the proper foundations we should have the strength and the wisdom to know who and what to avoid or ignore but the reality is that we will be fooled now and again. Hopefully over time we will learn from our mistakes.
Educators are much like parents. The really good ones constantly worry about the young people whose lives they are entrusted to guide. Teachers stress over how to most effectively instruct their charges. They continually ask themselves if their methods are the correct ones. They know that they have a powerful impact on the lives that pass before them. They don’t want to be too strict but they also understand that being too easy is just as destructive. During the school year they think of their pupils from the first moments after they awake. Often their last thoughts before falling asleep are about them as well. Like parents they fear that making a dramatic mistake will impact their kids for a lifetime. They walk a tightrope that feels like a razors edge. They drive the non-educators that they know insane because their conversations so often center on the children that they teach. At the end of each school year they hope and pray that somehow they have managed to do mostly the right things so that their students will be more knowledgeable and more confident than they were in August. They also hope that they have done no academic or psychological harm to anyone. Theirs is a responsibility as daunting as parenting.
I’m a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a mentor for other teachers. I’ve often wished that there were a silver bullet that absolutely without a doubt would allow me to know the perfect way to raise a child. We all know that there is no such thing mostly because each and every person is unique and lives in unique circumstances. Cookie cutter approaches are never fail proof. We do believe nonetheless that certain best practices followed in particular situations do indeed tend to work with most children. We learn about those things and try them until we notice that they may not be best for certain people who need a different kind of approach. Just as parents of multiple children soon realize that it is a disaster to treat all of their children in exactly the same ways, so too does the masterful teacher understand that sometimes they must make accommodations for particular people.
I’ve seen some funny things during my years as an educator. There was a time when every teacher had a red pen and used it to grade student work. At one point a well meaning soul suggested that grading in red was demeaning to students, particularly if the red slashes covered the work. The new way of doing things was to find a calmer color like purple or green to make corrections. It was supposed to make the bad news easier for the student to take. Unfortunately lots of marks indicating incorrect responses make students feel awful no matter what color they may be. The teacher has to decide just how to break bad news to the student. If the mastery is not there it can’t just be hidden but no educator wants to destroy a person’s confidence. The best teachers take the time to talk with the kids who are still falling down and to show them how to improve. They believe in giving their students opportunities to try again, to learn, to grow. Their goal is mastery, not success on a single assignment. They show their pupils how to compete with themselves and how to strive for progress. With anywhere from twenty five to one hundred twenty five individuals this is not an easy thing to do.
Teachers are aware that some of their students shine like the stars in heaven and that others struggle every single day. I recently saw a former colleague who teaches high school choir wondering aloud how to set up an audition for a child who is anxious. He wants to help such individuals without crippling them in the future. He understands the fine line on which he walks. I know him to be an incredibly conscientious educator who will worry over this issue until he believes that he has found a reasonable and fair way of doing things. This is the way that most teachers are.
It’s the time of year when parents celebrate the successes of their children and worry over any problems that occurred. Teachers post final grades and almost always grieve over the students who just never quite made it. Few educators find any joy in realizing that even one of their kids has ultimately failed to meet the standards. They take such defeats quite personally but also know that they can’t always save every single individual no matter how much they wish to do so.
We are all in this high stakes challenge of taking our precious babies from infancy to adulthood. Parents and teachers are on the front lines of the endeavor. They have the most important jobs in the world. They are the ones who will ultimately provide us with the next generation of doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers, leaders, artists. Their work is difficult but it need not be lonely if we all agree to work together.