Everything I Learned About Parenting I Learned in the Classroom

I’ve been teaching college students for more than 15 years now, and in that time, I’ve learned a lot about parenting. Here are some of the main things I’ve learned:

1. If you trust young people and give them a challenge, they’ll surprise you with how well they can rise to the challenge. When you’re hoping they can do it but you or they are in doubt, act like you believe that of course they can do it and they’ll trust themselves enough to figure it out – especially if what they’re doing is fun.

Photo from Juniata College

2. If you remind them to trust their instincts, be conscious of their choices, and always be respectful of themselves and of others, then if something doesn’t feel right, they’ll know that they can choose not to do it or they can remove themselves from a situation and pursue a better option.
3. If you help them to see that they are responsible for the choices they make, and you’re clear about your expectations so they know what’s expected of them, then they’ll take responsibility for what they choose.
4. When they don’t meet expectations, if you let them figure it out by suffering the consequences (whether it’s a bad grade or a playdate that needs to be rescheduled because a room didn’t get clean), then you can help them to focus on what their choices are from this point forward.
5. And the biggest learning: always put the focus on them, not you. It’s what they’re learning, not what you’re teaching, that’s important.

Parents at SUNY New Paltz

I think the last point is especially relevant. As teachers and as parents, we think a lot about who we are and what we should do in those roles. It’s easier to focus on what we’re doing than on the more elusive, less measurable question of what they’re getting out of it.

But the key is to not just to focus on them, but to focus on where they’re headed and who they’re becoming. The question of what they’re learning is a dynamic one. As parents and teachers, when we focus on what they’re learning, we’re oriented to look for and to expect positive change and growth. We can love and enjoy them just as they are while also recognizing that life brings about changes for all of us — and both we and they need to recognize that as they get older they’ll have more and more responsibility for how they will respond to those changes.

As a teacher, I’ve noticed that this orientation to dynamism is what seems to separate the young people who are curious and willing to take responsibility for themselves from those who are narcissistic and think the world should either serve them or tell them exactly what to do.

Future college student

Young people who expect that there will be challenges and who trust that they can respond to them responsibly are very well-suited for the challenges they’ll face as a young adult and beyond.

I’m thinking about this because I’m having the most rewarding teaching experience of my career right now, and a lot of it is the result not of what I’m doing, but of what they’re doing and learning. All I did, I think, was create an environment in which they’re challenged to meet high expectations – and I was able to use digital media to create that environment.

The story about what I did and what they did is recounted in this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I challenged my students to work collaboratively to produce a video essay on their own experiences of technology use in the classroom, although I think the specific topic was less important than the process of working collaboratively to produce something they all felt was worth putting up on YouTube.

With the help of my university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, the process got started when I provided them with some survey results that told them how students and faculty on their campus were experiencing frustrations related to technology in the classroom. Then, I asked them to talk about what they thought, and I asked a few of them to come up with some ideas they could “pitch” to the rest of us as possible story ideas for our video. I’m fortunate to work in a university where there are some terrifically talented, smart, funny, and collegial young people. So, by the third class session, we were hearing pitches, brainstorming possible directions, and then deciding on the “container” that would hold our ideas, while also reflecting on some readings about how technology is changing everyday life and why some might be more comfortable with these changes than others. Then in the fourth and fifth sessions, after they had a chance to think about how today’s technological changes were like and not like those of earlier time periods (e.g., the printing press), they wrote a script and then did a “dress rehearsal” and recorded the video. A few of the students took on the task of editing the video, so that by the fourth week of classes, they were premiering the video.

Once expert in education and technology Mike Wesch recommended the video on his blog, things really started to get moving, and the video went viral. As of Valentine’s Day 2010, we’ve had more than 22,000 views.

This has been an amazing experience for the students, because I think they feel as if people have heard something they wanted to say in the way they wanted to say it. They’ve been invited to speak to faculty about their experiences. They’ve talked about what they want out of their educations. And they’ve also found that by rising to the challenge of working together to produce something funny and meaningful that speaks out of their own experiences, doors are starting to open for them. In an economic environment in which they’ve had to be very reserved about their expectations, this is a really empowering thing.

And in the meantime, what’s happened is that we’ve all become more open to learning than I think any of us would have thought possible. We’re having meaningful conversations in class. They’re writing deeply and thoughtfully, capably relating fairly traditional course content to their own experiences. They’re making connections. They’re trusting each other. And we are all really enjoying the experience. I love going to class every day because I look forward to learning from them.

It’s made me look at my home life differently, too. I’ve always liked to play with my kids, but now I really see the connection. When we can have fun together, and when I trust them to do interesting things and to share them with me, they are really participating in fostering a home environment of learning, love, and mutual respect.

Maybe I should’ve titled this, Guitar Hero’s Made Me a Better Teacher and Parent. But I guess that’s what I’ve learned from parenting that I’ve taken back into the classroom, so maybe I’ll save that for a future post.


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