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Katie Mgongolwa Headshot

How Teaching Prepared Me For Parenthood

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TEACHER
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On my first day of student teaching, I showed up and discovered the teacher was not there. No one knew where she was, and the students tried to convince me to just let them leave. Later, when I recounted this to my supervisor, he laughed and said I'd experienced "baptism by fire."

I was barely 24 when I became a teacher with my own classroom. I'd been 22 when I entered grad school to get my Master's in Education; marriage and children felt like a lifetime away. It never occurred to me as I learned to become a strong and effective educator that I was also learning how to become an effective parent, too.

One of the biggest similarities is the idea of "being on." From the time the first bell rang at school, to the moment the bell rang signaling the end of school, I was "on": I was alert, supportive, quick on my feet, funny, competent, decisive. To lead a class of eighth graders meant I was playing multiple roles: I had to be funny and interesting to engage my students; I had to be a counselor and a psychologist to reach kids struggling; I had to command a class and discipline fairly; I had to figure out respectful ways to interact with my supervisors, administrators, and fellow teachers. There were numerous problems and obstacles everyday. I sought to make a difference, to affect real change, and to also earn the respect of the teachers I worked with. Once that bell rang ending the school day, I could feel myself start to decompress. By the time I was done lesson planning, meetings and tutoring a few hours later, I finally got into my car and felt like I could begin to relax. I was off the clock. I didn't have to lead or entertain or impress. I could cook or watch TV or go for a walk with my dog. Parenting, I have found, is very similar. My 2-year-old keeps me on my feet constantly, both literally and figuratively. From the moment little toddler fists gently nudge me awake at (what feels like) the crack of dawn, I am "on." I lead, I teach, I organize, I structure. I must quickly think of solutions; I must be a rock and a support system. When my 2-year-old is emotionally vulnerable and needing me to meet her needs, I am there. It is not until she is fast asleep at night that I feel myself go "off the clock." I cook, I binge-watch Game of Thrones, I walk my dog. It is tiring. It is necessary for survival to take a break to zone out and not parent or feel responsible for the world.

Patience goes hand-in-hand when it comes to teaching or raising children. Patience is my drug of choice. It is what I work hard on and yet I still desire more. I understand people who meditate now. There are many times that I close my eyes, or breathe in and out carefully, in an effort to abate my building anger. I count to 10. And when the patience comes (if it comes), it makes such a difference in how the situation plays out. Sometimes my patience empowers my daughter. Sometimes it allows her to work through her feelings. I never realized it, but there were several teaching strategies that I use now that are built on the value of patience. For one, if you ask a child a question, really give them a chance to reply. We are so tempted to answer for them; maybe we are just impatient or perhaps we think they don't know the answer. But by pausing, and giving them time to answer (even if the pause seems like a long, awkward silence), it gives the child time to focus, to process, and to formulate a response. Furthermore, I find that patience plays heavily into dealing healthily with emotions. My toddler pushes my buttons and challenges me daily. That's her job, although often it feels exhausting and makes me feel angry. I find that by having patience (fake it 'til you make it!), I am able to keep anger out of my response. I am able to see her emotions more clearly. She needs to challenge me because she needs me to handle her struggles. She needs boundaries, not conflict. That was essential in classroom management, too. It's not a matter of showing weakness; students also need to feel safe, and part of that is testing teachers.

I feel like my role as a semi-psychologist -- which most teachers experience when trying to help and support challenged children -- has carried over in parenting. If a kid is acting out, it is often because of something going on with them, not because they are a jerk. I learned that I should seek to understand them. There are so many times that raising a toddler feels like I am dealing with a tiny tyrant. Sometimes when my daughter challenges me it takes a lot of self-discipline to remind myself that she isn't giving me a hard time -- she's having a hard time (see: Patience). I've learned to ask questions, to let children know it's okay to feel their emotions, and to help find solutions.

Teaching taught me the value of lesson planning, to have a game plan, but to also go with the flow, read the situation and be spontaneous. Kids crave boundaries, but you have to be flexible and be willing to deviate fro script. I've learned to read the room and adjust. In class, there were days when students just could not handle a lecture or a group activity, or perhaps need another day spent on material that I thought we would have finished. There are days when my kid can't handle hanging with other kids or being indoors. Finding the balance between organized game plan and flexibility has proved enormously helpful.

I learned the important of orderliness from teaching. Anyone who saw my college apartment knows I'm not a naturally neat person. But it was still surprising to me in my first year of teaching when my supervisor criticized my desk, citing that it was too disorderly and was thus distracting. I was annoyed at the time, thinking that my desk had nothing to do with my ability to teach. Now I understand it reflected on me and my credibility as a teacher to run my classroom and create success. I had to become organized and structured, despite my natural tendencies that verged on "hakuna matata". Likewise, as a parent, my toddler needs structure, neatness, and organization. It is one of many factors that lets her know she can depend on me, that I can handle whatever she throws at me. She is truly happier if all her trains are in one bin, all her balls are in another, and her toy food is collected and placed back on her toy stove to wait for her. So once again, even though I'd be content enough to leave the toys out, instead every night I clean and organize. I could definitely do better, but I have grown immensely from the messy college student I once was.

Parenting and educating are two of the most undervalued positions today. As a mother, I constantly witness my body being legislated against, the rules shifting, and society treating me detrimentally, like I am not supposed to have a voice or advocate for my body and my child. As a teacher, I have grown weary watching governing bodies that have never been in a classroom make decisions that are ignorant and detrimental. Of course, to be clear, teaching is a job. I love teaching, and my students become like my children, but do not let the government use our love for teaching as an excuse to pay us less. It does not make us poor educators to want a livable wage. Recently, I was visiting a local elementary school. The children were so young that they reminded me of my child. When I watched parents pick up their kids after school, I was struck with how each student is someone's entire world. I never truly realized that until I was a parent. It reaffirms the commitment I have to teaching, but it is also an overwhelming prospect, to do justice to every child in the way that I hope my daughter's teachers do.

Because at the end of the day, one of the most poignant ways that teaching and mothering are similar is that we would lay down our lives for our children. Every teacher knows in the back of their mind that they could be teaching at a future Columbine or Newtown. We do it anyways. Or perhaps we do it because of that; perhaps we are seeking out a way to create a generation of people who do not create Newtowns. And as parents, we pray for those kinds of teachers, because we would die for our children if we had the choice. Too often we don't get the choice. That is why the biggest similarity between teaching and parenting is love. Love may not be all you need, but damn, it makes a difference.