It is not uncommon for adults to enter fields inspired by childhood experiences. Sometimes those experiences motivate us to follow in the footsteps of someone or something we look up to. Other times, inspiration is born from a need to heal from something and a hope for restoration. Every path has its own hybrid of parts that contribute to our being the dynamic individuals we are.
When it comes to education, every partner in the educational process brings their own personal narratives to their teaching. These stories influence our perceptions and behaviors, whether in a classroom, board meeting or at our own kitchen tables. Developing awareness of our vulnerability is an important means for parents and professionals to connect with themselves and those they teach. This is especially meaningful now, as we tap into our internal reserves for the strength and skill needed to respond to the rapidly changing educational climate.
A professor of mine, also a veteran school principal and prolific writer on school leadership, once framed this concept for me very clearly. He started by focusing on parenting. He said most people are prone to parent how they were parented, for better or worse, though this is not a fated outcome. By delving into oneself and reflecting on your childhood experiences, you empower yourself with the ability to make conscious decisions to act in accordance with what you believe is best practice.
Similarly, he explained, we tend to teach how we were taught. Irrespective of what our school experiences were—and likely they were varied—our default teaching mode reverts back to those moments. This tendency is changeable by a similar measure. Thinking critically about our experiences as students—the good, the bad and the everything in between—and making conscious efforts to do better enables us to improve and become the educators we ourselves would want to learn from.
Most educators approach their work with plans. Those plans may be self-initiated or guided by school curriculum and culture. No guiding principles can cover every moment or address each nuanced background that we bring to our roles as educators. Inevitably, there are elements of spontaneity that are part of going with the flow in a vibrant classroom or home environment. Along with essential planning, there is a need for flexibility, understanding and adaptability, as so much is subject to change.
With whatever plans an educator enters the workspace, there are constant judgment calls that need to be made to respond to individual remarks and behaviors or to unanticipated interruptions. In those ‘judgment call moments,’ how should we act? There is the ideal method that we study and train for, and there is a default mode that stress, fatigue and burnout usher us into. As teachers or parents, we all have our moments. How do we maneuver from the mode we may find ourselves inclined to go, to get to where we want to be?
First, we need to identify what feels right when we teach, or parent. There are different parts that comprise what we call ‘a good day.’ Sometimes it is about conquering a checklist with only minor hiccups, and other times it is about checking off less, but feeling a sense of equanimity in the home or classroom, even when it takes an enormous amount of effort to achieve that. I have heard educators share that there are times they ‘get through’ what they plan for the day and feel accomplished in that regard, but do not feel very good.
Keeping composure, switching gears and taking the time to listen all require a great deal of patience, resolve and attention. Even when devoting attention to those attributes means not making it through all the intended day’s work, the feeling of being somewhat remiss is likely coupled with feeling at peace with how things turned out. Ideally, we would adjust our daily goals to accommodate both substantive objectives and the time to invest in creating the environment in which we feel best teaching and our students, or children, will be most engaged in learning.
Being aware of what does not feel right while teaching is just as important as identifying what does. It is helpful to know what triggers test our limits and make us prone to sliding into default mode. ‘Default mode’ is the expression of being at our wits’ end. It is resorting to tactics we likely did not appreciate experiencing as a child but somehow seem to surface. Take the time to identify those behaviors and ask yourself when and why they creep back up for you. Ask yourself what practical and efficient techniques you can use to pause and recalibrate.
One common practice used to help refocus is deep breathing. Cleansing, nourishing, centering breaths can facilitate healthy pauses and more thoughtful responses to a given situation. Another approach is to turn to prayer: either a scripted one or plain words from the heart. It can be very beneficial to talk about or engage in these methods with students, as these skills can be so helpful to them, too.
While each school and household has its own guiding philosophies, it is the personal touches of each educator that set the tone for how those ideals are transmitted. That individuation is reflective not only of what we have been through, but also the choices we make about how we respond to their effects as we continually learn and grow with them through adulthood.
There really is not a set of all-good or bad memories we take with us from our childhoods or that manifest in our teaching. There are compilations of different stories, narratives and modalities that have shaped us and made us who we are. Choosing to become increasingly self-aware as to the paths we travel can inspire us to bring about the positive changes we want to see in education, beginning with our own practices.
Aviva Edelstein is an educational consultant living in Teaneck. She has experience in both formal and informal education as well as homeschool curriculum design and instruction.