10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years of Teaching (that I hope I remember 10 years from now as a parent) – Part 1

What follows is the first in a planned 10-part series of posts on some insights I’ve taken away from the first decade of my career as an English teacher. I originally thought this would end up being a single post, a list of ten boldface bullet points each followed by a short, illustrative blurb. But a list of a ten things almost immediately became a list of fifteen…then a list of twenty. And the blurbs quickly turned into stories which grew into rants which bordered on becoming vitriol.

That’s not what I wanted.

No denying, teachers often get crapped on in America. It’s very easy to succumb to frustration and give in to the temptation to start slinging shit back. I’m not here to air out my dirty laundry, though. Nor am I here to get on my soapbox about how awful my life is (it’s not…at all) or how much I hate my job (I don’t….at all).

I’m not here to tell readers how to raise their children. My daughter’s two-and-a-half and my next one’s only been in the oven for four months. Who am I to dole out parenting advice?

Consider this an open letter to future me. Future Chris will, at age 45, have over twenty years of teaching under his belt and will be sending his first-born off to high school for the first time. I’m sure future Chris will have probably forgotten more about both parenting and teaching than I can ever imagine knowing. But since I can’t be sure what he will remember and what he won’t, I want to share this list with him before I forget. And I want him to share it with his future children.

Feel free to listen in and read along. If I seem stand-offish, please remember that as I write I’m staring down the man I’m going to become, not squaring off against you. If I think future Chris (or any of his future children, for that matter) needs a swift kick in the ass, I’m damn sure going to give it to him. Just stay clear of my foot and we’ll all be fine. And hopefully we’ll all learn something in the process.

Number 1 – If you do not take your child’s education seriously, your child won’t either.

I don’t know if this is really the “Number 1” most pressing concern on my list or not, but it is the most immediate right now. March is a chaotic month in my district. Most Illinois schools are closed on Casimir Pulaski Day (typically observed on the first Monday of the month) both in memoriam of the Revolutionary War hero and out of respect for the vast Polish population in Cook County. Early in the month, we also have an Institute/inservice day for teacher education, department meetings, planning, etc. By the end of the month, we typically arrive at Easter, which equals spring break. It all adds up to a lot of days off in March. Which brings me to my first real point:

Don’t be surprised that your child doesn’t think school is important when you use every three-day weekend as an excuse to take a week-long vacation.

Admittedly, I teach in a somewhat affluent community. This particular issue is probably much more local than some of the others I’ll be discussing over the coming weeks. But it’s still worth addressing. I have students every year who I can count on being absent for part (if not all) of every shortened week. This year was a particularly troubling example. Pulaski Day and the March Institute fell on the Monday and Friday of the same week, resulting in a three-day week for students. Many of them never set foot in the building during that week. Today (Friday, March 29) is our first day off for spring break. School does not restart until Monday, April 8. That’s TEN DAYS OFF. Yet I had several students absent yesterday. And I even had a few who were out of town by the end of the night Tuesday, effectively missing half a week of school before a week-and-a-half long break.

Now, short of earning “fuck you money” (as Jonathan Tropper called it), this probably won’t be much of an issue for future Chris. Whenever he is in school, his children will be in school. Regardless, the message is still valid and still worth sharing. If, as a parent, you create a routine of skipping school in favor of other activities, family vacations, etc, the only message you are sending to your child is that school doesn’t matter.

Kids don’t get “mental health days”.

Hell, I don’t get “mental health days”. I mean that both in the sense that I don’t have the freedom to take them and in the sense that I plain don’t understand them. I grew up in a house where my sister and I did not miss school. I distinctly remember being a teenager on one of the rare days I was allowed to stay home sick and my father coming home to check on me during his lunch hour. He called me “wuss” for not at least trying to go to school and get through the day. And I remember it happening more than once. He’ll probably deny it, but that’s the sort of thing that stays with you. So much so that to this day I have a complex about missing work. With rare exception – last year’s prolonged illness and subsequent surgery notwithstanding – I don’t. I have a job. And part of my job is to be there. So I make sure I’m there.

When you’re a child, your career is your education. That’s your job. And part of that job is making sure you’re there every day. And sometimes that means needing to have the wherewithal to suck it up, drag your ass out of bed, and simply muddle through the day whether you’re feeling your best or not. That’s life in the real world. It doesn’t go on hold for a day because you don’t feel like being a part of it.

The frequency with which some of my students are absent boggles my mind. And I can hear them talking to each other. I use the phrase “mental health day” not because it’s part of the popular lexicon, but because I actually hear it come out of teenagers’ mouths. More common is the classic, “I just didn’t feel like going to school yesterday”. Or – not only my personal favorite but also the most transparent – “I had a test/quiz/paper/project that I wasn’t ready for” or “I didn’t have done”. Which brings me to my final points for today…

There should always be enough hours in the day for school work.

Again, your child’s career is their education. Two vital parts of their job are homework and studying. Those things simply need to get done. When “there aren’t enough hours in the day” and “something’s got to give”, it can’t be your child’s education that does the giving. If the homework and the studying aren’t getting done, 1) your child isn’t learning everything they need to learn; and – since I know this is the most important thing to a lot of people – 2) their grades are going to suffer. So please remember this:

Your kids don’t have to be involved in EVERYTHING.

Since I was in high school, it’s become a frighteningly common belief that you will never be able to get a job or get into a decent college unless you have a transcript loaded with dozens of sports and activities. And this trend has trickled all the way down to the grade school and even preschool age. I see far too many children whose lives are scheduled so tightly that they never get any time to simply be kids. Their lives are a virtually non-stop procession from activity to activity with little room to stop and breath, let alone play. Throw schoolwork on top of that – especially a high school workload – and maybe a part-time job, and what do you think is going to happen?

Believe me when I say that it speaks much higher of your character and your reliability (not to mention your employability) if you are a part of fewer clubs, sports, and activities, but are more actively involved in them. Don’t just sporadically show up for meetings and sit at the back of the room because you don’t know what’s going. Earn the trust of your peers and become an officer. Don’t just go along for the bus-ride with an athletic team and be content to say you wore a uniform on the sideline. Do everything in your power to be a player, even a captain.

Limit yourself to things you truly enjoy and truly believe in. Then pour yourself into them with passion and with dedication.

And please save some of that passion and dedication, not to mention some of your time, for your education. You’re not going to get anywhere without it, no matter how many boxes you’re able to check on a college or job application.

I hope you’re paying attention, future Chris. And I hope that you and (y)our children are already ten steps ahead of me.

As for everyone else, thanks for reading.

I’ll be back soon.

Click here to continue on to Part 2.

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One thought on “10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years of Teaching (that I hope I remember 10 years from now as a parent) – Part 1

  1. Pingback: 10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years of Teaching (that I hope I remember 10 years from now as a parent) – Part 2 | Christopher V. Alexander - Husband, Father, Teacher, Coach, Author

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