Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Tale of Two Teachers

I constantly worry about whether I am making the right decisions as a mom. Sound familiar? I think it's a pretty common state for parents in general. I think I might have been worrying overtime lately because I've been making parenting decisions without the benefit of talking to Jake. Then again, I'm not alone in that either. 

I think somewhere between "I grew up crazy and turned out okay" and "look at me, I'm a helicopter," is exactly the "right" mix of freedom and structure for any given kid. Sometimes I think I've found it with Howie, only to have a string of bad days and then panic that I've slid too far one way or the other. 

So basically, parenting is a constant balancing act is what I've decided. That might be the most frightening thing about adding another kid to the mix--a new little person means a new puzzle to solve.

Recently, amid all the fretting about "getting it right," being involved but not *too* involved, I learned a really important lesson: maybe it's okay to second-guess your methods, but don't second-guess your instincts.

Howie has been going to the same school since he was four months old (and now he's four years old). He loves it, and our overall experience--from the teachers, helpers, and leadership to the curriculum, programs, and activities--has been exceedingly positive. We even love the security guards!

The Motley Crew at Howie's Birthday
Since Howie was about a eighteen months old--and younger in some cases--he has been with the same nucleus of a dozen-ish kids that have about a seven-month range in age (November babies to May babies). They moved together from the baby wing, to the toddler class, to the pre-pre-K class. The kids were not always in the same small groups, but were always in the same room.

Last summer, when the kids were in the pre-pre-K room, we had an issue where another child was regularly biting Howie. Hard. The child is usually sweet and was obviously going through something at the time, but that didn't make the behavior acceptable, and frankly it was really hard to stop. When it finally did stop, I was so relieved, it took me several days to notice that my poor baby was happier when he was being bitten than he was now that the incidents had stopped. 

I started noticing that I wasn't running into the parents I was used to seeing at pick-up and drop-off, so I asked the teacher about it and learned that "the group" had been moved up to the next classroom. Without Howie. I was upset, but my logic brain kicked in and told me "there must have been a reason; maybe there's an age policy as the kids get older; he's not always going to get to be with the same kids, he should probably learn that now; don't be that mom, just go with it."

So I did. For about two weeks, Howie and I had the same conversation in the car on the way to school about making new friends, and how you don't lose your old ones just because you don't see them all the time. And every day, our conversation in the car on the way home involved Howie asking me why he didn't get to be with his friends. And of course, this coincided with Jake leaving, and with him my primary confidante. Sigh.

Fro-Yo: Textbook Mommy Date
One Friday, after we'd both had a long week, I decided to pick Howie up early and have a Mommy Date (what he calls the time we spend, just the two of us). When I got to the school, Howie was not in the classroom where he was supposed to be. The teacher's aid took me back to a different classroom, where my sweet baby was in a giant puddle of tears. His friends were in that class, and he didn't want to leave. 

The aid admitted to me that Howie had been having days like this all week, and my heart just broke. How did I not know that my baby was this unhappy? I scooped him up with big hugs and kisses. He promised he would be good if he could be with his friends, and I started crying too. Howie isn't learning a resilience lesson, I thought, he thinks he's being punished! And I resolved to fix it.

I went to the coordinator for his age group and asked the pointed question: why was Howie left behind? It was an age issue, the coordinator said. There was not space for all of the kids and Howie was the youngest. I threw off that explanation, pointing out that three of the kids who did move, including "the biter," were younger than Howie. So that couldn't have been it.

"Well, I thought you would be pleased that we separated them," she noted. Ah ha! Now we've found the truth. They solved the biting problem by promoting one child and leaving the other behind. "But," I asked, "how is it fair to make Howie stay behind when he was doing nothing wrong?" Apparently, she hadn't considered it that way. She was very apologetic and told me that if I wanted to move Howie up, they would find a way to accommodate me. Naturally, I took her up on the offer.

True to their word, Monday morning Howie was moved into the pre-K class with his friends, and he was thrilled! I was not. I met his new teacher that morning, and she made it clear from the very beginning that she was not happy that another child was being added to her class. "He's too young," she said, even though others in her class were younger. "I have concerns that he will be disruptive," she said, even though she'd met him just minutes before. 

From that very first encounter I was unhappy with this teacher, but then the old logic kicked in again: she's probably just feeling overwhelmed; or maybe she's having a bad day, it is Monday after all; don't be that mom, who complains about every little thing; he's a good kid, and she'll figure that out; she may be unhappy today, but she'll end up loving him; hey, not every teacher is going to love Howie, and we might as well learn that lesson now.

After Howie moved to the new class, he was definitely happier at first, but things changed. Gradually, he started coming home with more and more "bad notes" on his progress charts. I was concerned, at first, but other parents were saying the same thing at birthday parties: everyone was experiencing an uptick in "bad notes." I decided that the Pre-K class must just have stricter rules he would have to get used to. They are getting the kids ready for kindergarten, after all

But then, more than just Howie's chart changed. He started acting like he was going to get in trouble for things when he wasn't doing anything wrong. He started not wanting to talk about his day. Then, he started acting out--talking back, not listening, actively disobeying. Some of it I chalked up to being three, and some of it I chalked up to Jake being gone. I tried to weigh those things in determining what was willful and what wasn't. I gotta say, at three, that's a hard distinction to make. But it got to where if there was a day he didn't have a bad note on his chart, Howie would actually cheer. Something was definitely wrong.

Then one morning, the age group coordinator called me and asked me to come visit with her. When I got to her office, she began by telling me that all of the (seven) boys in the class were having trouble; they were taking turns being disruptive, and they weren't sure the group was going to be able to stay together. I told her that didn't surprise me. The boys had been together for years, and they interacted like siblings (for better or worse). I was just asking her what I could do to help when the teacher walked in.

She laid into me right away about the fact that I travel too much, and must lack structure in the home for Howie to behave this way at school. I have to make him feel like he's a priority, she said, and clearly I was doing a poor job of that or he would act better. She noted that, by this point in a deployment, he should be used to having his Daddy gone, so that's hardly an excuse for being disruptive. And that if Howie would just behave, she was sure the others would follow.

There was more, but honestly I stopped listening after that. I looked at the coordinator, visibly uncomfortable but unwilling to step in, and I just smiled. I thanked the teacher for thinking Howie was a leader, and assured them I would talk to him. And I told them I was very interested to hear their plan for better engaging all of the boys in that class, and that I would be happy to help however suggested.

I was furious, but I'm not one to snap in the moment. I resolved to ask for Howie to be moved that afternoon. But when I got to the school to pick him up, he had already been moved to a different group. The coordinator saw me and gave me an affirming nod. She wasn't willing to say something in the moment, but she got my message; at least I had to give her that. And actually, all seven of the boys were eventually split into different groups. Moral of the story? It's not always good to have seven kids who act like siblings in the same classroom!

For the past two months, Howie has been with a new teacher. And it's truly been like night and day. Last Friday he celebrated three straight weeks of good notes at school, from all of the teachers of the new class. I hear comments about how helpful he is, how he takes care of his friends, and is attentive in his classes. He does come home with the occasional 'bad' note (he's a pre-K boy, right?), but now they are the exception and not the rule. And he loves school again. We are finally back to situation normal.

At one point I saw the old teacher in the hallway, and she mumbled something about how she heard he was doing better. In what I can only describe as a moment of grit, I told her "Yes, he's doing great. He finally has a teacher that doesn't treat him like 'the bad kid.'"

It's possible I overstepped with that remark; her face told me that I did. But she needed to understand her impact. My experience this year has taught me that there is truth to the old adage about kids living up to the expectations put in front of them. When Howie was treated like the bad kid every day, he started acting like one. He started believing it. How awful is that?

Now that he's just being treated like "Howie," he has started being plain 'ole, expected-to-be-good, punished-fairly-when-he's-not, Howie again.

And I guess that's the other lesson: kids are resilient. I can't tell you how much I've beaten myself up over this whole situation, wishing I'd intervened sooner, wishing he hadn't spent months in such a toxic environment. I messed this one up, but he's okay now. In fact now, he's thriving again.

The final and maybe most important lesson this situation taught me was to trust my instincts. Part of me knew that this wasn't just growing-up-type adjustments we would have to go through, but I doubted myself. I hesitated because I was afraid to make the wrong choice, and as a result I made the wrong choice. I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to fix it!

And I'll tell you one thing, I'm sure it's a mistake I will repeat. I could say that I'll never doubt my instincts again, but that's not reality for moms. But I hope that what I learned is to err on the side of trust, not doubt. I will remind myself that no one knows my son better than me, and that if I sense there is a reason to act then there probably is.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my goodness, Reda! This story just breaks my heart! For Howie, for you, for Jake, for the other kids who have to suffer with this woman. I hate that you all had to go through this. I am so glad Howie is thriving again. I have so much more that I want to say. The former teacher in me just wants to hurl insults at that lady. So so sorry for you guys.