So this is going to hurt a little. But often, I find that the most problematic thing about teaching children is their parents.
They come in all shades. The over-protective parent. The helicopter parent. The pushy parent. The lazy but ambitious parent. They may request special attention, feel their children need to be challenged more, give teachers pointers on their teaching, make excuses for their children not completing their assignments, advise house parents on communication skills, want their children to be more competitive, expect school staff to respond to e-mails within the hour, the list goes on.
It’s as though parents send their kids to alternate schools for the right reasons, and then start expecting the wrong things. They think about success. They think in comparisons. They think about milestones, achievements and shiny trophies. It’s like they have already scripted their children’s lives and whatever the child says or feels is irrelevant. Needless to say, children are confused.
I meet them every weekend. I can smell them from a distance.
“Can you give me a list of phrases he can use so his language can become better?” asks one mother. The father is busy looking at the sky, as if to say, “I don’t know how I got here.”
“I am still looking for those,” I say. “Besides, it’s not Math. There is no formula to good writing.”
“But his spellings are so bad! I read his emails and he makes so many mistakes.” She seems flustered by now. She turns to the father.
“It doesn’t matter, as long as he is still writing you long emails and telling you what he feels,” I reply.
They stare at me. “An English teacher who doesn’t care about spellings! That’s weird,” they seem to be thinking.
Another one asks, “So how’s K doing?”
“He’s having fun,” I say. Another stare.
“Give him more work. Tell him what to read. Make him read,” she tells me.
I often wonder, would you tell a doctor or a chef how to do her job? Then why does it become okay to tell teachers?
A third says, “She doesn’t read! During the holidays, she watches TV all the time or is on Facebook!
“Oh! What do you read?” I ask him.
“Yes. Do you read?”
“Well, I want to, but I hardly get the time with my work,” he says. He seems offended. I have my answer though.
It goes on.
“How’s H doing?”, asks his father.
“I think he has really opened up, and is writing without inhibitions these days. He used to shy from putting words on paper, so this is big,” I say, beaming.
“But his grammar is bad, no?”
When I moved to be an English teacher at a residential school, I came to a bunch of students, even the best of who didn’t know the difference between its and it’s and to whom, books were either fiction or non-fiction.
I could choose to do one of two things: tell them all that was wrong with them, their spellings, their punctuation, their grammar, their sentence construction. Or I could teach them to find their voice, to write without inhibitions, to express their thoughts without the fear of making mistakes.
I chose the latter. I chose well. There was a time when a paragraph would make them groan. Now I give them 500 words and they go, “What? That’s it?”
Here’s the thing. We read words visually. If a child has put a word out there, he/she knows what it means and how to use it. If children are corrected or reprimanded each time they use a wrong spelling, they may fall out of love with words very soon.
To every parent that is constantly dissatisfied with their child, I want to ask this: When was the last time you tried something that scared you? When was the last time you taught yourself how to make a Dragon’s Egg? When did you last read a genre that intimidated you? When did you last tell yourself, ‘I am not very good at X or Y, so let me take an online course.’? When did you last do something knowing fully well that you would get it wrong?
So take some risks. Break some barriers. And don’t tell your children what to do. The best thing you can do for your child is to set them free. Allow them some control over their lives. Ask them what classes they want to take. Give them the opportunity to make some decisions and watch them smile in return.
And above all, listen. Listen when your children speak. When kids feel like their parents truly listen to them (about spotting a nightjar near the art room to the 100 metre race they almost won), they feel more connected. This increases their self-confidence and increases their overall happiness. They are more likely to take healthy risks. They are confident and secure in their decisions. They learn that sometimes people make mistakes, but there is always a chance to right a wrong.
I know that in the age of social media, conversations are old fashioned. But have them. They will last longer than your smartphone.
(This first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 2nd February, 2015. If you have something to share, mail me on firstname.lastname@example.org)