How My Kids Made Me a Better Teacher This Summer by @JustinPMcCollum

When he’s not learning from his kids at home, Justin is at school teaching his 3rd grade kids. He writes about overcoming the garbage that gets in the way of loving your job at Conquer the Cruft – Love Teaching. You can follow him on Twitter at  @JustinPMcCollum.  

The birth of my second son a few weeks before summer hit put a serious dent in my summer plans. Yes, I love him, feel incredibly blessed to have another healthy boy as a part of my family. Yes, I’m thankful to have an entire summer to be home helping my wife and enjoying this fleeting stage of his development. But with two kids, summer just isn’t what it used to be. Sometimes I think of my kids as my zen master drill sergeants, and they were masterful teachers this summer, subjecting me to all sorts of lessons, when I was mindful enough to receive them. Dealing with the frustrations of two young children intruding upon my fantasy of what summer is supposed to be taught me these lessons that I hope will translate into me being a better professional this year:

I’m entitled.

I work with a largely privileged population, and it’s not uncommon for me to get frustrated by what I perceive to be entitlement in students or parents that I work with. I don’t have as much money or power as most of the families I serve, but that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled. My kids exposed my entitlement when when they made it difficult for me to get my summer workouts in. Shortly before summer vacation started I got a great app called 12 Minute Athlete. In a former life I was a distance runner, accustomed to spending an hour or more exercising every day. Now that I have kids, all I am asking for is a measly twelve minutes. I feel entitled to my twelve minutes, because it’s not that much, after all. And staying healthy and fit is something everyone deserves the opportunity to do, right? I think I deserve what I want just because I’m me. As long as the priority is mine it doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal. These are the thoughts of the entitled. These are my thoughts.

This year, when I’m tempted to get angry about a student’s or parent’s entitlement, I’ll remember my own. Maybe empathy will enable me to curb my own frustration and help someone else deal with theirs as well.

I have an unhealthy habit of judging myself and my day by what I accomplish.

Accomplishing important tasks is a good thing. Getting things accomplished is one of my strengths. It’s also one of my weaknesses. When my pre-defined to-do lists reflect meaningful priorities and a realistic accounting of the time in my day, they keep me focused on what matters. My to-do lists can also rob me of what matters. My attachment to checking off the list causes me suffering when life (i.e the needs of a three-year-old and infant) gets in the way of those checks. My attachment to checking off the list  causes my kids suffering when I am not present with them because I’m chasing a complete to-do list.

This year, when I’m making to-do lists for my classroom I will make sure they reflect meaningful priorities and a realistic accounting of the time in the day. I will also remember that being present for and with my students is much more meaningful and life-giving than crossing an item off a list. Anything that can be written on a list can also be written on tomorrow’s list. There are no mulligans on teachable, humorous, powerful moments. Such moments are more deserving of my time and attention than anything I can write on a to-do list. Taking advantage of them will be at the top of every list I write.

The highest highs come after the lowest lows. 

There’s not much more agonizing than your baby’s screams. And there’s no greater sense of peace than when they stop. A moment of quiet is so much more powerful after a long period of screaming.

This year, I will remember that learning is messy, chaotic, and sometimes agonizing. And I will remember that the outcome for my students will be so much more powerful if they get to it through their own messy, chaotic, and agonizing paths. Simple, quiet, neat packages of information from me spare the discomfort, but also the satisfaction and impact. I will embrace the lows with a faith that they will inspire higher highs.

It’s not about me.

Being a teacher means answering the question, “What are you going to do with your summer?” at least 100 times in the last few weeks of the school year. In my glory days I would happily answer, “Whatever I want,” all 100 times. Then I had kids. Now the response is, “Whatever I can get done in the seven minutes a day that I have to myself.” I wrestled with this reality every single day of the summer, but I’m thankful. I’m thankful that my kids are teaching me that a life well-lived is not a life that is all about whatever I want.

This year, I will remember that it’s not about me. I will have my priorities, my wishes, my needs, but this job is not about me. My students and I will both be so much happier when I embrace this. Thankfully, this summer my own kids gave me plenty of practice.

I will expect drama 

Tantrums. Whining. Spit-up. Other bodily fluids and semi-fluids. All before breakfast. It’s not easy to be happy about these things, but it’s a whole lot easier when I expect them and embrace them as opportunities to teach and love. It’s torture when I try to hold on to the attitude that I don’t deserve these kinds of intrusions on my morning. Whether I deserve them or not, they’re here. They’re real. And I am at my best when I just deal with them without also fighting the fact that they exist.

School is full of drama. This year, I will go in to each day expecting it. If by some miracle it doesn’t happen, then I’ll be extremely appreciative. But when it does, I’ll try to remember that I can make myself miserable by obsessing over the fact that it’s not the part of the job that I love, but it is part of the job. If I treat it as something that I expect and am capable of handling then it will make me much less miserable.

The days are long and the year is short.

I love my kids, but the days can be excruciatingly long. Putting together 20 piece puzzles, reading the same rhyming book over and over and over again, wiping mouths, and sweeping floors only bring out the “time flies when you’re having fun” cliche ironically. And despite it all, summer is over too soon. A new school year is here already.

This school year will be the same way in many respects. There will be many long days filled with tedium that had nothing to do with inspiring me to be a teacher. But I will think about how my baby has already almost doubled in size and how my three-year-old isn’t even a baby anymore. It happened so fast, and so will the school year. The next thing I know another summer of lessons from my zen master drill sergeants will be upon me. And my career will have one less year left in it. I hope that thought will keep me present and motivated during each long day this year.

I hope I’ll be as good a teacher to my students this year as my kids were to me this summer.

Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc

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  • Jacquie says:

    I love your honesty AND your “transfer of learning.” It sounds like your boys have a great dad and your students have a “cool” teacher. Go get ’em, and enjoy your year.

  • Man, this piece really rings true for me. Mine are 7, 8, and 9 right now, but when they were babies and came along one after the other, it was like hitting a brick wall. What a huge change in perspective, and it really does take daily reminders of what’s important to keep me from sinking back into the self-involvement that was such a habit before they came along.

    Having them also made me much more sensitive as a teacher — when students were unable to get everything right (e.g., deadlines) all the time, I was much more flexible than I was pre-kids. All you need is one major delay caused by your own kid’s unexpected up-the-back poop to realize that, well, sh*t happens. Thanks for a great post, Justin!

  • […] over to AJ Juliani’s site to read my guest post about how my kids made me a better teacher this summer. Also, check out his […]

  • Norah Colvin says:

    You are right – children can make the best teachers, especially when you are mindful enough to notice! What a great student you were through summer. Reflecting on one’s learning and teaching is an important part of the process.

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