Do You Parent/Teach According to Harvard’s Standards?

The Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education suggested to the class of 2016 that there are 5 essential questions you should regularly ask yourself. He noted that if you get into the habit of asking these questions you have a greater chance of being successful and happy.

He was posing these suggestions to people who have spent time at Harvard preparing to transform education in ways both large and small. I absolutely agreed with everything he said and I want to take it a step further. You see, he told these graduates that there is no higher calling than the field of education. There is a higher calling and that is being an educator who also bridges the gap for parents.

When we, as educators, forget that our students are not just learners of a subject, but beings destined for their own unique greatness we become trapped in a tunnel of teaching ‘to a test,’ to a ‘field,’ to a curriculum.  We can be the models who remind parents that the present moment is as important as achieving a future goal.

Great teachers and leading edge parents have some qualities in common. They have high standards for their children as well as themselves and continually reflect on the effectiveness of their relationships. They have established consistent, age appropriate routines so kids know what is expected from them. Within an environment of expectations they see each child as a unique individual and treat their gifts and challenges with respect. They know that traditional methods do not work with all children and are willing to tweak their approach without being annoyed for the inconvenience. They have established signals and rituals that the children can use when feeling frustrated, overloaded or need help.

While there is no official commencement for reaching a milestone called conscious parenting or compassionate teaching, there is great opportunity for educators to work with parents as they model the dean’s advice:

Dean Ryan got some laughs with his first question. You see, he referenced his own kids as he admitted that most of his lectures at home sound like, ‘blah, blah, blah’ until he gets to the part where he asks them to do a chore and they respond with: “WAIT; WHAT?” When translated through the parenting/school perspective this question suggests that in our busy lives it actually pays to slow down so we can more fully understand what our children need from us and before drawing conclusions that they are lazy or spoiled, or make a decision that they need medication, we take the time to investigate further, seek more information, and even self reflect on the way we have set up their lives.

The second question is, “I wonder….” This is actually one of my top suggestions for parents who want to change their child’s behavior. When you wonder you become curious. You can ask yourself, “I wonder why he is having breakdowns. I wonder why she talks back with an angry attitude.”  The willingness to ‘wonder’ also brings you to reflect on how you might improve the situation. “I wonder if he is feeling overwhelmed by his feelings. Perhaps he needs me to hold him, to listen to him, to not give advice but just be a safe place to release the pressure of his day.” When it comes to a rebellious teen the willingness to ‘wonder if’ might sounds like, “I wonder if I ask her opinion, acknowledge her perspective, appreciate her small acts of taking responsibility, if that will improve our relationship.”

The third question is, “Couldn’t we at least….” This reflects the willingness to get unstuck; to move past judgmental disagreements and to get to some consensus. This is really helpful when parents come with different discipline styles and teachers approach their work with rigid expectations. To be able to respectfully disagree and offer the hope of “Couldn’t we at least agree that we want to reach this child in a way that is most emotionally healthy?” It’s also a way to get started even when you don’t know where it will lead, such as “Couldn’t we at least find someone to work with who will help us with understandings and strategies so we no longer have to yell or use threats of punishments?”

The fourth question is, “How can I help?” As parents we often are guided by an ego that says we know what’s best for our children. As teachers under pressure to produce higher test scores we succumb to the ‘realities’ of our profession and often lose the idealism that led us to the field in the first place. The instinct to protect, to lecture, to admonish, to save our kids from themselves does not recognize that children can be experts in their own lives. When working with young children schools can support parents in understanding developmentally appropriate ways of moving through defiance. When working with older students teachers can use this question of, ‘How can I help?” to model how mutually respectful conversations can lead to trust.

The fifth question gets to the heart of all parenting issues as well as to the core of your own professional beliefs and convictions. It is, “What truly matters to me?” This can be your guiding light as you tackle the challenges of raising/teaching children in the context of a stressful and busy life.  The choices that are made must always be within the framework of an honest answer to this question. Is it money, status, fear, ego or wounds from your own childhood that drive your parenting decisions and teaching style? Is it a deep desire to build a community of connection and core values? This is a question that you get to reflect upon over and over.

As the Harvard commencement came to a close the dean challenged these educators to move beyond the focus of student performance and into a place of deeper meaning. He said that the greatest gift a teacher can give to a student is to help that student know that he/she is cherished and respected, and even more than that, to feel beloved on this earth.

Great advice for parents as well as educators!