Monday, March 9, 2015

Killing them Softly Part Deux: Confession of a Teaching Father

I apologize to my first-born every day.

My childhood was pockmarked with violence, swings from poverty to middle class and back, and an atmosphere of substance abuse within my family and the surrounding community. My oldest daughter, Jade, was eleven months old when I came home from Iraq and truly met her for the first time. It was my second deployment as an infantryman during my time in the Montana Army National Guard. With that type of past and the reality I learned from my latest year at war, I had made the decision that I would raise my daughter to be tough and independent so that she could survive when our world went to hell.

From the moment I met that beautiful girl, I worked to build her strength, her resilience, and her self-reliance. I made her toddlerhood about work and strength; every game we played was a lesson to be internalized and utilized as a tool for what I saw could only be a hard future. We rarely cuddled, hugged, talked nonsense, or played. During my first two years of teaching in one of the most diverse districts in the country, my wife would often comment that I pushed my four-year-old daughter harder than my eighth-grade students.

Jade had trouble in school; homework took hours and often led to tears. I would sit with her while she worked and wonder what I was doing wrong. Why was it so hard to complete a pile of worksheets? She rarely went outside to play and had few friends with whom she played outside of the school day. Her mother and I had both worked our way up from nothing and were both successful and somewhat intelligent people. What was going wrong?

I ignored that Jade was incredibly smart. She had figured out that if she made me mad enough, I would walk away to avoid reverting to the yelling and violence I had learned about parenting from my youth. When I stormed away, she would stop working and start drawing or daydreaming, something I saw no time for anymore, even though as a child I had often wandered in the plains and mountains of Montana while daydreaming.

I look at those moments now and have a profound respect for her ability to learn an intricate social pattern in my behavior and take complete advantage of it. In some ways, our children inherently know more about what they need than we do as teachers and parents.

I regret nearly every moment of that time.

It wasn't until her younger sister, Bella, was born that I realized how many mistakes I had made by trying to make her an emotional rock. I didn't know Jade as a baby, but I knew Bella. I knew the fragility, the fear, and the wonder. In Bella's first year of life, I learned more about teaching than I could have imagined. I truly understood learning for the first time as she would attempt and fail, only to get up and attempt again. Watching her taught me what scaffolding meant, and for the first time, allowed me to understand that pyramid graph that flashed across projectors and worksheets in college. Every perspective teacher, no matter what level, needs to work with very young children as a part of their own learning.

Jade is now ten. She and I have a tremendous relationship which is centered on a near-daily apology. I jokingly remind her that her younger sisters will have an easier time, because I have no parental training and she is my experiment. That sounds ludicrous from the perspective of many parents and teachers, but it has fostered the ability for us to discuss actions we both take and how they affect each other, the family, and others in our lives. She is happy, she plays, and she is a less anxious person who now loves going to school to learn, all because I came to the realization that the world wasn't going to hell, and I could chill out.

This confession serves two purposes. First, it is to highlight that we are not naturally born with all of the answers, and that our own experiences and backgrounds can confuse us on what is good for our own children and our students. It also serves as a reminder that as I pick apart a system we define as being for the public good, I am not left unstained by the mistakes we make on a daily basis.

Yesterday, I mentioned that we would discuss Maslow today. The above was supposed to be an introduction into an examination of Maslow's hierarchy and how it is often misused in our system as both educators and parents. I think most folks are done reading by this length and I won't delete it to make room for Maslow, because it serves a purpose as I move forward on the topic of what we do to our children both within in the system and how our understanding of that system affects us as parents. We will move on to the Maslow mistake tomorrow. If you are just joining this conversation, please feel free to comment, or send a message on Google+ to Lee Butterfield.

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