Lessons from the Classroom: How Teaching Prepared Me for Parenthood

During my first years of teaching, I frequently reassured myself that the classroom management trials I was facing were preparing me for parenthood one day.

When I was caught off-guard by a student’s dishonesty and struggled to find the words to make the moment a teachable one, or when I was blindsided by a situation that could have easily been avoided, I told myself I was learning valuable lessons that could be used one day in motherhood.

The times I found myself starting to lose my cool in a power struggle with a student. The times I had to turn away to compose myself because of blatant disrespect – or to hide giggles that I knew I couldn’t let the students see. I told myself that these were conditioning exercises in controlling my emotions, and that by the time I was a mom, I’d have the perfect, level-headed poker face at all times.

Well, it’s 8 years later, and I’m a mom now. I’ve been caught off-guard. I’ve struggled to find the right words. I’ve been reactive instead of proactive. I’ve lost my cool. I’ve walked away. And I’ve giggled when I should’ve been stern.

And so it would seem that the years I’ve spent in the classroom haven’t given me super parent powers to handle every situation perfectly like Danny, Joey, and Jesse always seemed to be able to do. (Anyone else have Full House on the brain right now!?) But, I do think the many lessons I have learned in the classroom have extended beyond it – they have molded my parenting philosophies and have given me some basic ground rules to strive for as I raise and discipline my child.

So, for those of you who don’t spend your days in charge of a room full of 30 children, here’s what the classroom has taught me about parenthood:

lessons from the classroom

  1. Encourage Ownership. I encourage both my students and my son to own their mistakes. We talk about them. We discuss actions that would have been more appropriate. And just like I have my students contact their own parents to explain the reasons for a detention, I have my three year old take ownership in his consequences. For example, if he loses the privilege to have a certain toy, I don’t take it from him. He chooses where to keep it for the designated length of time and places it there himself. What would have been a power struggle seems to go a little more smoothly with a small element of choice involved – and the lesson is more likely to stick, too.
  1. Use Natural Consequences. One of my favorite natural consequences in school is my response to a student rocking their chair back on only two legs. It’s simple: I take the chair. Not many students choose to lean back after spending a class period standing or kneeling. In parenthood, it can be difficult to find a true natural consequence for every situation. For the toddler screaming in their carseat, we certainly can’t take the carseat. But what we can do is pull the car over and sadly explain that because it’s not safe to drive with so much noise in the car, we will stop and wait, but we probably won’t have time to _____ when we get home. Does it delay our arrival by a few minutes? Yes. But is it better than arriving at our destination with both of us frazzled and upset? For sure. Many times, natural consequences aren’t as easy as a simple time out would be. But I have found both at home and in the classroom that they’re usually more effective – meaning the behavior changes quicker. Note: If you can make the natural consequence immediate, it’s much more effective, especially for younger children. Sometimes that’s a stretch though. Get creative!
  1. Implement the “You Tell Me” Rule. There have been times I’ve told the class to turn to a certain page in the textbook and then answered at least three questions about what page we were on before truly getting started. So, I implemented the “You Tell Me” rule. I will answer a question TWICE (because there could have been a legitimate reason the information wasn’t heard the first time) and then I turn the tables. An at home example: “Can I have another jellybean?” “No, it’s almost dinnertime.” Thirty seconds later, same question, same answer. Fifteen seconds later, same question. This time, I answer with a simple: “You tell me.” Guess what? He almost always repeats the correct answer (with the reason) and then we’re done. Conversation over.
  1. Have Withitness. This is a real word in the education world. I was first introduced to the word in college. The concept basically means to be aware of everything happening around you to the best of your ability. In parenthood, this is a crucial part of safety, but it’s also important in curbing many undesirable behaviors. The goal of withitness is to be proactive, to know the environment – and the tendencies of the children in your care – so you can respond to a problem before it escalates. Or even better: Prevent it completely. This means putting your own distractions aside, especially in situations that often serve as a trigger. For example, being aware of the beginning of a toy dispute and intervening with a plan to take turns BEFORE one kid gets bashed in the face with a plastic skillet. Practicing with-it-ness has also resulted in my ability to discern honesty from dishonesty. Most kids have a “tell” – be observant!
  1. Be Calm. Be Matter-of-Fact. Be Consistent. There is nothing a mischievous middle schooler likes better than to see that his or her behavior has rattled the teacher. And believe it or not, middle schoolers and toddlers have a LOT in common. This one isn’t easy. Emotions are slippery at times. I’ve found that using consistent vocabulary helps. A loose script allows me to compartmentalize my emotions a little as I use familiar words. The Boys Town strategy being implemented in many schools teaches the use of “Coupling Statements” that briefly identify the inappropriate behavior and then suggest an alternate behavior. Example: “You are continuing to play even though it’s bedtime. Instead, try putting that toy somewhere you can find it to play with first thing in the morning.”

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