As a teacher and school administrator, before I had my own children, I threw around the term “helicopter parent” far too often.
This term perfectly captured my experience with parents up to that point. Parents seemed to always be hovering around my students. They would email me asking if a paper turned in just the day before had been graded yet. Parents would help their kids craft emails asking me for extensions on assignments, and their over-editing would make their children sound like tiny Fortune 500 CEOs. One parent even walked her daughter to the door of my classroom every day for an entire semester. Before I was a parent, the parents I interacted with seemed ridiculously overbearing.
My perspective on helicopter parents fundamentally changed, however, when I became a parent. The term “helicopter parent” quickly dropped out of my vocabulary on the first day I sent my son to daycare so I could return to work after leave. My own experience as a parent has made me a better administrator because it has given me a deeper understanding of what parents care about and how they communicate.
Parenthood showed me that teaching the whole child actually means something.
When I started my teacher education program, everyone was talking about “educating the whole child.” My understanding of this concept was that a great teacher not only taught kids content but also helped them develop important social-emotional skills.
In hindsight, I was only partially correct; I still had a lot to learn. With no child of my own yet, I didn’t really have any skin in the game. Now my understanding of this approach has deepened. My son is more than a student who learns content. He’s a complicated person who has feelings and ideas and who is also learning how to be a good friend and student. Like all parents, I want him to have classroom experiences that value him as a person—not just as a student who meets benchmarks.
Parenthood helped me find my off switch.
Life in the dean’s office is not easy. When I come to work, I never know what challenges the day will bring. I work from the moment I arrive, and I regularly work through lunch. However, when I am finished at the end of the day, I’m really finished.
Before I was a parent, my husband and I carried on like grad students. After dinner, we’d continue to work. If we were feeling fancy, we’d go and work at a coffee shop. Left to our own devices, we were constantly reading, writing, and planning for our teaching.
Things are different now because we eventually learned that we are not great multitaskers. Personally, I can’t do two things at the same time well. When I’m at work, I give 100 percent, but when I leave for the day, my work has to stay behind, too. Our energetic and inquisitive first grader is at home, waiting to ask me questions about sloths and multiplication. I can’t answer those questions and send work-related emails at the same time.
Parenthood has taught me that words matter.
When my son was in kindergarten, he struggled with his ability to focus, specifically when it came to learning and repeating letter sounds. Simply put, he could only do 23 sounds in a minute as opposed to the recommended 35.
“If he can’t pick up the pace,” his teacher warned, “he might be labeled at-risk.” At the moment, I nodded, and we moved on to talking about other aspects of his learning.
That night, however, I could not stop thinking about what the teacher’s comment could mean. I should have asked more questions and had her spell out for me what “at-risk” meant, but at the moment, I was paralyzed. Her depiction of my son did not match what I, as his parent, knew of him.
Because of this, when I am delivering important information or news to parents that requires processing, I am incredibly intentional. I never use jargon, and I always ask if parents have questions. When parents leave my office, I want them to know that we have a plan for moving forward. When I speak about students, I always remember that I am speaking about another person’s child.
Parenthood taught me that fear can look like anger.
Before I was a parent, I weathered many difficult conversations with parents. I routinely felt personally attacked by their assumptions and their negative energy. Now, as a mother, I can see why parents can sometimes react in outsized ways in response to stressful situations involving their children. There is nothing more stressful than when your child is hurting or upset.
Now, when parents get loud or upset, I hear the fear and hurt in their voices—not their anger. It is hard for a parent to feel helpless, and oftentimes their big feelings are misdirected at people who are just trying to help. When things go south, I remind parents that we both want what is best for their child. As long as I can show that I know and care for their child, we can nearly always get through rough patches.
Parenthood taught me that the second shift is real.
It wasn’t until my son was three months old that I heard the term “the second shift.” A colleague, noticing my exhaustion as I trudged to my car, chuckled and told me to enjoy the second shift. Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung coined the term to refer to the set of tasks and responsibilities waiting for working parents at home once they wrapped up the work day.
The truth about parents who work is that they are always exhausted. After a parent has been working all day, it can be hard to gracefully change gears when they need to respond to an issue at school. In conversations with parents, I make a point of asking them how they are. I keep pictures of my son on my desk as an invitation to others to ask me about my life. When we know about each other, it’s easier to remember that we are both humans just trying to do our best.
I never would have imagined that parenting would provide me with this level of professional development.
Behavior and communication that once seemed too heated and personal is now much more understandable. My confidence has grown, and my communication with parents has greatly improved.
Now, if I could only get a parent to teach me how to get my son to eat the apple I send with him in his lunch box every day, I would be all set.
Has parenthood been positive professional development for you? We’d love to hear about your experiences.
Plus, check out this great article on how to be a principal parents want to talk to.