When I was a kid, teachers lived in their classrooms. They didn’t have spouses or children. No pets to speak of, unless you counted the hamster over by the bookcase. When they left school, it was only to go to the teacher store to stock up on supplies.
I thought of teachers as two-dimensional beings pretty much through high school graduation. It’s no coincidence I wasn’t a very good student. If the teacher didn’t exist outside the classroom, then the consequences of my behavior would be similarly confined, right? But I’m the one who was ultimately hurt. In elementary school, I became intimately acquainted with my classmates’ outerwear because I was ordered so often to stand with my face in the coat rack for misbehaving. In junior high, I memorized the pattern of the carpet in the vice principal’s office. By high school, I was adrift. Children regulate their behavior and learn who they are by viewing themselves through the eyes of people they know and respect. Teachers are often among those who fill that role. The problem for me was that my perception of teachers as less than fully developed humans excused me from acting fully human myself—at least in their presence.
Comedian Paula Poundstone reminded me of this recently while I was speaking with her for a writing assignment. Poundstone readily admits that she was a troublemaker who delighted in aggravating her teachers. Yet by the time Poundstone was in high school, her notion of teachers had changed. She stopped giving them a hard time and began to seek them out. She’d spend her free time in their offices, just chatting. Her grades didn’t improve—in fact, she dropped out senior year—but she stayed in touch with her teachers, stayed on course, and eventually became a success.
The transformation happened when Poundstone was about to enter seventh grade. That summer, her family befriended a woman who taught junior high school music. When school started that year, Poundstone found herself in that woman’s class.
“When I knew this woman socially, I could not be a [screwup] in her class,” Poundstone recalls. “Partly it was because ‘Oh, she knows my mom!’ But it was also because I knew her as a human being.”
Poundstone has three kids of her own, ages 8, 12, and 15, and she makes a point of befriending their teachers. She genuinely likes and admires the type of people who have chosen education as a profession. But she also remembers how that seventh-grade music teacher stepped into her life and out of the two-dimensional world all teachers had previously inhabited, and how doing so left the door open for more teachers to do the same.
You don’t have to become best friends with the teacher to convince your child that the person at the blackboard has more to offer than homework and tests. Being involved and developing a parent-teacher relationship work just as well. That’s where parent group work and all that volunteer time pay off. The outlines begin to fill in when your child witnesses the two of you interacting informally. Your child begins to see this person as someone with thoughts, opinions, and a life that matters. Eventually, your child will do what Poundstone did and start caring about what the teachers think of her. Because you got involved.
Sharron Kahn Luttrell volunteers for parent groups at two schools in Mendon, Mass.