The teacher-tricks: What being a teacher taught me about being a parent.

A few years back, when my kids were still little (around two and five years old) another mum-friend made a comment as our play-date was coming to an end. She said: "I always learn something about parenting after I’ve been with you". Two thoughts flashed simultaneously in my mind: 

1. I must be a boring person to hang out with!

2. Can’t she tell I’ve got no idea what I’m doing?

I’m pretty sure I laughed in her face, but she shook her head and said: “You use all your teacher-tricks… like when you do the ‘I’m getting serious count’ you start at five and go down to zero and you don’t muck around. I start at one and drag it out. I got to eleven the other day before I realised I had no idea where I was going. When would I stop? At a hundred? A thousand?”

A thank you to teachers, everywhere, from Sydney to Cambodia. Post continues below.

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I’m pretty sure our conversation degenerated into an analysis of the highest number our eldest child might know and I assured her that I’d made it to zero plenty of times without my child slipping into the compliant obedience I was seeking.

“Yes,” my friend said, “but you do have tricks up your sleeve. I learn a lot.”

Since then, I’ve tried to be less boring when I get together with friends. I’ve also become aware of things that I do as a parent that are actually techniques and strategies I’ve transferred over from my classroom days. I suspect many teachers-who-are-parents also employ these tools, although it is likely that I’m a strange – and boring – anomaly.

Now, please let the records show that I am by no means a “parenting expert”. On any given day I’m fumbling my way through this mothering gig using basic survival strategies and my somewhat dodgy intuition. Since being handed my baby Olivia some 11 years ago, I’ve lived with the vague sense that I’m doing something wrong and indeed some days I am: incorrect school uniform, missing appointments and completely losing my cool over a wet towel left on the bed – like I mean completely losing my cool. Occasionally I have mothering meltdowns that are so colossal, they have become part of our family folklore (story to follow). For now, let it be known, I’m no parenting expert (I’m not even a parenting enthusiast). However, I am aware that I do rely on my teaching skills as I’m “parenting”.


So what are the things that teacher-parents tend to do? I can only speak for myself but these are things I learnt as a teacher and regularly apply to my parenting.

1. I’m consistent on the things that matter.

As a teacher I was consistent with consequences, the way I structured the classroom day, the language I used with my students and the way I transitioned between tasks. To be honest, as a parent I’m not nearly as consistent as I’d like to be because, well, being consistent is really hard! It relies on routines, preparation, firm boundaries and strong convictions. But I am consistent on the things that matter to us and the smooth running of our little family. Our evening routine remains a consistent series of activities that occur within a given time frame and in a familiar order. In the mornings there’s no TV – because it’s an adrenaline fuelled challenge just getting to the bus without the added distraction of cartoons or morning news. And because I squeezed those little suckers from my body and I don’t want them to be broken, I’m also consistently consistent on all things safety. Sun screen, hats, helmets, life jackets, hand holding at road crossings… the list rolls on. I know that these are all ‘no brainers’ and are pretty much standard parenting practises but the fact that they’ve been repeated over time has created consistency.

For a child, an understanding of an adult’s commitment to consistency is built over time. It relies on us, as parents, repeatedly stating and reinforcing our boundaries, routines and expectations. It’s not always easy, particularly given that kids seem to be born with the expert skills of nagging and negotiating and spend their time looking for the weak link in the chain. But, day after day, I refuse to negotiate on any of the big ticket items that keep our family ticking over: bedtimes, homework routines, safety rules and behaviour expectations. My kids know that I won’t negotiate on these things and so there’s a whole raft of battles that I don’t have to navigate because consistency has done the work for me. 


2. I make my behaviour expectations explicit.

Just like adults, children like to know what’s coming up and they like to feel prepared. As a teacher, I’d spend time prepping my class for excursions and events – I’d explain the behaviour required and the consequences they could expect for acting outside those boundaries. Sometimes, for young children or kids with additional needs, I’d even role play the expected behaviour. As a mum I talk to my kids explicitly about my expectations – even when we’re visiting friends or family. As we drive there I’ll be saying things like:

“Remember Nan’s been unwell, so you’re going to play quietly and it’d be nice if you two could do something helpful for her.”

Alternatively, I might ask some questions:

“How will we behave at the museum?” 

I’m ‘mum-enough’ to admit that my kids roll their eyes at these questions but let me tell you, when we set foot in that museum or art gallery or movie theatre, I can bring my kids into line with a steely glare and the words:

“Remember what we spoke about.”

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Teacher p.198 ‘Mum?’ We are driving home from Sophie’s tennis lesson. She is snacking on Burger Rings, one threaded on each finger, nibbling them off like edible jewellery. ‘You know how my name’s smart?’ I wait a beat, try to join dots. ‘Mmm,’ I say, still puzzling it out. She has heard my uncertainty and clarifies: ‘How my name means smart?’ ‘Ah, yes. Your name means wisdom. And Olivia’s means peace.’ ‘So . . .’ She crunches through another Burger Ring and I try not to think of the mess she is creating in the back seat. ‘Did you call me Sophie because when I was born you looked at me and knew I was smart, or did I do something smart?’ ‘Well,’ I tell her, flicking on my lights as the grey evening transforms our world. ‘Daddy and I both liked the name Sophie. But there was also a lady—you’ve met her. You know my friend Sophie? We visit her farm? She does puzzles and craft with you?’ I can hear her licking each finger, ten emphatic sucks. ‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘You’re named after her, baby. She’s an amazing lady and I love her very much.’ #fivepicsfromteacher

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3. I say 'no' a lot.

Teachers don’t have the luxury of time to thoughtfully unpack every request a child presents; teachers just have to say no. Of course they do their best to couch “no” gently and considerately but at the end of the day, teachers simply can’t indulge every child’s request for extra PE time or a spontaneous art session or free play. As a mum I say “no” firmly, often and unapologetically.  My youngest, Sophie, is still coming to terms with hearing no. She has the makings of a great solicitor, the way she builds her case against my “no”: she wheedles and moans, feigns trauma and disappointment, attempts to haggle.

“It’s a hard no, Soph,” I say these days. “Please stop asking.”

She will sigh with deep frustration but there’s a resignation to that sigh too. She is growing to understand that no means no. And in my experience, kids are actually okay with that.  They don’t expect to receive everything they ask for, so as parents we should feel empowered to lean in to “no” and not be afraid of the consequences.

Applying “teacher strategies” to my parenting gives me a few tricks but by no means puts me at an advantage! I’ve had my fair share of epic parenting fails – the following story (as promised) stands as testament. Recently, after a shopping trip with my daughters, I insisted they throw ten dollars into a public rubbish bin because I was tired of them wasting my money! Nothing about this makes sense! But there’s something about the emotional strain of family life that occasionally causes my rational brain (and teacher-brain) to lose all function, only to be replaced by a series of rapid brain-farts that make no sense and leave both my kids and myself feeling bewildered and exhausted! After the money-in-the-bin event – that same evening in fact – I did apologise to my girls and we debriefed the whole experience (another teacher-trick). Now, Olivia relishes giving a recount of the Ten Dollar Day as it’s known. And her retelling is heart wrenching -  she describes the busker who was standing near the bin playing the violin as she let the note fall from her hands!!

GABBIE STROUD is a teacher gone rogue! Aware that the education system wasn’t serving the needs of its students or their teachers, Gabbie left the classroom and has become a passionate advocate for teachers and educational reform. Today, her life is a special blend of chaos as she juggles teacher advocacy, freelance writing, co-parenting and online dating. (Nah – just kidding. She doesn’t have time for dating.)

Are you a teacher? What child-rearing strategies have you 'borrowed' from the classroom?

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