I write this from my one and only perspective of authority: I write this as a career public school teacher. I do not write it as a parent, because I am not one, and that role is irrelevant and not remotely prerequisite to my understanding of children or my ability to teach children, as an educator, because the role of the teacher differs fundamentally from the role of the parent. Conflating them demonstrates misunderstanding of what a teacher is and what s/he does.
I was asked recently in a contentious context what I believed the role of the parent to be. I responded, “the facilitation of authenticity.” I believe there was a misperception that this is a minimizing or dismissive statement… but authenticity in the human experience is the paramount objective, in my view. Imagine Maslow’s Hierarchy for a moment: Envision the fulfillment of self-actualization, for a person to become as completely one’s self as one can be. To achieve the true, highest self.
This is not “merely” anything. This is the truest and highest aim of humanity, and the cliches of what parents want for their kids are better summarized thusly than any other way, to me.
“I want my child to be happy.” Well, no, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes happiness would be falsity, but I gather parents mean this more generally. “I want what’s best for my child.” Well, no, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you want what you think is best despite there being possibly ample empirical or anecdotal evidence to suggest something else is better, but it discomforts you. “I want my child to be a productive member of society.” If your child is authentic and happy and does nothing to contribute to the fabric of America, but harms no one and is self sufficient, will you be disappointed in her?
I don’t seek oversimple or convenient understandings of what’s best for a child. “Facilitating authenticity” accepts in the former term that one can only attempt and has no true control, because one cannot nor ought to truly control another person, but rather love and provide for them; and in the second term that every individual child is unique, and what one is best and right and true and real for one child will bear little to no resemblance to what is best and right and true and real for another child. We facilitate authenticity: We seek with every vehicle at our disposal to create conditions for and support the development of the child’s full potential, as s/he would have it.
Are children in need of significant guidance and direct intervention if not supervision? At times in youth, absolutely, yes, and I am not suggesting we allow a seven year old to predetermine his or her own path and then enact that plan without deviation, but the specifics on my feelings about the unfolding and unique timeline of moving children from dependency to independence, and the elimination of our usurpation of their rights and individuality and control over time into the encouragement of their experimentation, exploration, and ultimate self-determination, free of adult coercion, is another subject entirely. I do not dodge it; I merely say, that is not the specific matter at hand. Right now, we’re talking adult roles.
I choose my language about children intentionally, and it is true, it can be challenging to hear sometimes. But if you converse with me, if you go with me down this rabbit hole of art and science, and examine the human condition and seek understanding of the child as a total entity, and include sociology, psychology, emotion, learning, awareness, consciousness, play, freedom, liberty, passion, will, and action in totality, I believe that you will find “authenticity” is that which most of us seek most desperately, and that the facilitation of the conditions in which a child may thrive to be his or her true self is the highest, noblest aim.
It is the mutual aim of the true parent and the true teacher, though our roles in facilitating that authenticity are fundamentally different, and in many ways mutually exclusive.
The parent is biased. The parent is, must be, ought to be biased: Deeply, passionately, uncompromisingly dedicated to the child. To that parent’s child. The parent must never apologize for or relinquish a steel grip on love for his or her own child.
The teacher must not be biased. The teacher must not be, ought never to be biased: Deeply, passionately, uncompromisingly dedicated to all children. To all parents’ children. The teacher must never apologize for or relinquish a steel grip on love for all children, equally.
A parent parents. A teacher teaches. They are not the same role, even if they both (ideally) are full of love for the same child. Better to have both roles working tirelessly in concert than one role dictating (at best) or ostracizing (at worst) the other. I believe, passionately, in collaboration, as anyone who has read my work or observed me in my schools will know.
While in so, so many cases these aims and perspectives overlap, the times in which they do not, in the interstices of good intention and fair-minded action in which opposition exists, collaboration is and must be key. I was accused in this conversation of having an adversarial view of parents. I do not. I have an adversarial view of the law and of debate processes, as has been the heart of jurisprudence and the generation of accord in Western society since it was founded. But I do not view parents as natural adversaries; I view them as necessary allies, as we share (or ought to share) a common aim: the total love of the total child.
However, I am not afforded, as a teacher, the luxury of selecting which children may thrive and which may account for an acceptable rate of attrition. I have no right to allow for acceptable losses. When I am tasked with the care of, responsibility for, and teaching of 36 children, you (parent, citizen, onlooker, policymaker) task me with 36 instances of the most daunting task, every one of which must be a blazing success. In the course of discharging that duty – one I take seriously and do so joyously – I must have the full facilty of my professional skill and the full support of my colleagues, my leaders, my policy, and my community. I have no adversarial view of the parent by default.
What I do regard with the most cutting, disparaging frustration and disrespect is a parent who believes I work for him or her, or that his or her role as a parent is “superior” to mine. There is no superiority among men, nor of men over children, nor of any one child over another. I reject it with ferocity. I am an uncompromising egalitarian, and demand flatness in education. This, to some parents, is defeating and disdainful. To them, I say, you do not understand me, or my position. I might go so far as to say, to a parent who is putting his or her ego squarely in the way of what is demonstrably best for the child, that s/he is being no parent at all. But those are specific instances, and I reserve that kind of judgment for the most select of confused, angry adults. They are, fortunately, exceedingly rare. However, they do exist, and I do not have the right to tolerate a parent causing suffering for his or her child when I know it to occur and can intervene on the child’s behalf. (Indeed, the law tasks me with doing so. But I digress. Again, these monsters are rare.)
I do not believe a parent any more important in the teaching of a child than a teacher. If you say “a parent is more important to a child than a teacher in that child’s life,” I would not disagree. But do not say “a parent is more important than a teacher in that child’s learning.” No, sir, he is not. No, madam, she is not. There is absolute flatness in educational hierarchy: The only person that is, will be, ought to be elevated is the child himself or herself. Everyone else is subservient to that unique, powerful intellectual and emotional creature, and clambering to lift one’s self up artificially when there is no cause whatsoever to do so is hubris tantamount to betraying the child.
If that disquiets a parent, this idea that the parent’s thoughts and feelings ought to be considered no more important than a teacher’s, in the course of a child’s schooling, then that parent has (in my view) an ethical responsibility to leave the public school system and seek the sycophancy of private tutelage, where teachers will work for parents instead of for children. Moreover, any teacher that would abuse this educational philosophy and elevate himself or herself to be more important than the parent, or the paraprofessional, or the psychologist, or the therapist, and gain a haughty anti-parent attitude, has no place in my school.
Yes, difficult parents can be difficult, but why? Generally, in my experience, it is because they love their children very much, and are doing what they think is right. We have a responsibility to engage with and, yes, to educate these adults. (A parent that believes s/he has nothing to learn about his/her child is demonstrating incredible arrogance. A parent that believes s/he knows everything s/he needs to know about child development and educating children is a master of self-delusion.) I hear parents say, “who are you, who have no children, to teach me about my kid?” I’m a professional educator. I have made my life’s work the study of children and how they learn. I would never presume to tell you I know your field better than you do; who are you to do so to me, simply because it makes you uncomfortable or frightens you? We can immediately get into the adversarial conflict that way, but I don’t seek it and I don’t want it. This interaction – the most common one – stems from a parent initiating the conflict. “I know my kid better than you do.” No, you don’t. You know your kid as a parent does. But a teacher has a different perspective, one honed by training, experience, science, and objectivity. We need to work together to take full advantage of this wonderful opportunity to bring together our unique perspectives. But no, you don’t know your child “better” than I do. It’s comparing apples and oranges. We have different roles. It’d be like you telling a doctor “I know my child better than you do.” Not in terms of kidney function, you don’t. Not when it comes to the mechanics of his cardiovascular system, you don’t. That’s arrogant. That’s adversarial.
Granted, this position assumes the efficacy and quality of the teacher in question. I consider that my responsibility, as a leader. I expect a lot of teachers. (Wouldn’t you want me to, parents? Don’t you?) If we are incapable of being wiser about, more knowledgeable about, more skilled at teaching, and more capable of understanding children writ large than our parent partners, then we’re not qualified and oughtta get outta Dodge. I take the understanding of pedagogy very, very seriously, and the passionate pursuit of comprehensive understanding of the child mind is my life’s work. I want to understand, and I want to share in and collaborate in that understanding with everyone invested in the wellness and development of every child in my care.
There is nothing adversarial about a perspective that believes so passionately in love for, respect for, and care for every single child in my charge that I will do anything and work with anyone to help facilitate every child’s authentic development and fulfillment of potential. I aim for authenticity. I hope for joy. I work for children. I invite you to join me.
And I respect the hell out of the parent role. I respect it, celebrate it, uplift it, and admire it, when done with real love and genuine care.
Finally, a comment was made in the course of this conversation with which I fully agree: “This won’t be well received.” That’s true. Social delusions are powerful things. They’re forces, edifices, institutions, egregores… The collective social delusion is immensely powerful, and we have convinced ourselves as a society that “children ought to go to college and get a job that makes them productive contributors to the workforce so they can be happy.” I think, as I’ll outline in my book, that it is an insidious lie that is ultimately inhumane and anti-child. But that notwithstanding, my position that the whole of American public education is effectively a lie includes, by its very nature, that parents have absolutely no idea what is going on with their child’s learning as a general rule. (I think this is something that ought to infuriate parents, but that’s another story. I am, despite suggestions to the contrary, on the side of anyone who is on the side of children, and that generally includes parents.) This suggestion of systematic, widespread, and sometimes intentional duplicity will, undoubtedly, not be well received.
It is, however, the truth. Truth is rarely convenient, and it is often not well received.