“Plan with the end in mind” was one of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” I found his adage true when I taught high school students for 31 years at Sumner High School. As a teacher, I could see what types of parenting styles worked and which ones did not. That foresight into the future was a real advantage to me when raising my own children. Here are a few insights I gained.
Most American students are taught that they are equal. Based upon the Declaration of Independence, that is absolutely true. What some of my more disruptive students did not understand was the concept that equality and authority are two different entities.
What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he stated that “All men are created equal”? Are we not different in sex, age, height and weight? Do some of us come from poverty, while others are born into affluent homes? Of course! So how can we be equal?
Jefferson’s point was that we’re all equal under the law. That our lives, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness (whatever happiness is) should be protected no matter what our status, race, or religion.
I found many of my disobedient students believing they were equal to me, their teacher, even though my education, age, and experience were far beyond theirs. They did not distinguish between equality and authority. That meant they often challenged me by acting up and causing trouble. This damaged the learning for all who were cooperative. It was the old 85-15 rule: 85 percent of the students were cooperative while up to 15 percent of the students created most of the discipline problems.
My best students were usually from certain religious groups. Some religions have very clear lines of authority that are absorbed by both parents and their children as they attend church services. In these churches, the family is highly valued.
I now teach mainly Asian international high school students at Green River College. There are few discipline problems because of the Confucian emphasis on hierarchy and respect for authority. This respect is not as common in American culture where trust in government is low among some parts of the culture. This distrust of authority is transferred to teachers as authority figures. This makes it difficult to teach in American public schools.
From these experiences with unruly students, I learned that to be an effective teacher or parent, you have to be both firm and flexible at the same time. This is not an easy lesson to learn, because it is really the definition of maturity—to live in the tension between extremes. Maturity takes time to learn.
I was fortunate in that my children’s mother understood the need for authority and she taught our children this lesson very early in their lives. She did this starting in their infancy by firmly holding them in her arms—establishing clear boundaries for them. Children need structure. Structure comes best with loving firmness.
I tend to be too logical and reasonable to be authoritarian. My gift as a teacher and as a parent is that I’m a good listener, and I learn from my mistakes. High school students force teachers (and parents) to act to meet their needs. Listening and being reasonable is what most children need and want. I had to be taught how to provide structure to my classroom.
Teachers and parents need to be flexible, too. They need to listen to the messages behind the words. I found it was often easier to concede a small point to get cooperation on larger issues. I also found that building relationships is an absolute necessity to effective teaching and parenting. I had to learn this by repeating a proverb in my head that I learned about year 20: “Children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I have found that being kind is a far more effective tool to dealing with students than being stiff, rigid, and authoritarian.
I am grateful to the thousands of students I have taught over the past 42 years. They educated me in people skills. They did this by not putting up with my flaws and bluntly telling me where I was failing. Your children can also teach you to develop maturity if you are both firm and flexible with them and by setting clear boundaries. Observing successful and poor parenting will help us all to be highly effective parents or teachers by “planning with the end in mind.”