And every time that I found myself in the classroom, I wondered what the teachers thought of me. I tried to seem warm but firm, loving but not overbearing, helpful but not too bossy. I think I did pretty well, overall.
Now I am the teacher, in charge of a classroom of energetic and curious ten year olds. Now I am the one who asks for parent volunteers to ride the bus to the museum, or to help us with our special craft projects.
Now the proverbial shoe is on the other foot, and it is WAY scarier.
The other day my class was scheduled to spend an hour decorating wooden spoons as part of a fundraiser for Project Bread. The project is a great learning tool, where the children in our middle class community learn about the thousands of hungry children in our own state. They have a chance to ask probing questions about income inequality and homelessness, and they get to engage in an activity that allows them to help.
But the project also includes hot glue guns, millions of tiny plastic googly eyes, and thousands of tiny sparkly pompoms. We need more than two adult hands to prevent chaos.
So, at the scheduled time, three lovely mommies came in to help us. The kids were just getting back from art class, and needed a snack. The classroom was loud and disorganized as the children came back in, clutching lunchboxes, thermoses and bags of cookies. They surged around the table where all of the art supplies were laid out, starting to reach for spoons and ribbons. The pompoms flew, the googly eyes tumbled to the floor.
This is pretty typical behavior for ten year olds when faced with glitter and glue and a chance to do something creative. Grab now, think later is the operating premise of the fifth grade brain. Someone had to step in quickly to save the situation, so I used my best projecting teacher voice to say, “If you can hear my voice, clap once!” The class immediately reacted, clapping hands and freezing in place. We do this many times a day, and they are used to this simple method of crowd control. I was pleased with their response as I firmly asked them to drop their spoons and materials back on the table and return to their seats. As they did, with barely a grumble, I looked up to see what the Moms thought of my technique. They stood together by the back wall, whispering. One was wearing a slight frown. My heart sank.
Why did I look at them, you ask? Well, because I want them to have a good impression of me, that’s why! I am the TEACHER! I know full well that I am the subject of conversation at the soccer field, the hockey rink, the coffee shop, the hairdressers. I know that they discuss my homework assignments (“Way too much.” “Not enough.”) as well as my discipline style (“She’s too laid back.” “She’s way too strict.”) Even though I know that I am relatively well-liked and well-respected, and even though I trust myself as a teacher, I want the parents to like me almost as much as I want the kids to like me.
“Oh, oh,” I thought, watching them comment quietly out of the sides of their mouths, “Did I yell? Did they think I was too loud? Do I seem too mean?”
For the next five minutes I talked with the kids, setting expectations, explaining procedures, calming them down before beginning. The kids were engaged and respectful, and we had a great conversation about how to handle the project while they munched their apples and ate their crackers. The moms were silent, waiting for the chance to help. But the entire time that I stood there in the front of the room, I felt as if I had a giant spotlight on me, and that a group of judges was taking notes on everything from my posture to my clothing to my tone of voice. My knees got a little shaky.
I spent the next hour making my own spoon and helping the kids to cut cloth, wrap ribbons, and find a way to share glitter glue. I moved from group to group, chatting and laughing with “my” kids, in the way that we do every day. The spoon creations were amazing, and everyone was excited and proud. I gathered the children together at the end of the hour, holding up “Hippy Spoon,” “Santa Spoon,” “Turkey Spoon,” and many others. They stood around me, the moms held the cameras, and several photos were taken. Then we all worked together, moms, children, teacher and got the room cleaned up and everything put away.
I couldn’t possibly have managed the day without the help and support of the moms, and I am incredibly grateful that they gave up their time to come in and help us. I hope that they had fun watching their children in action, and I hope that they enjoyed the spirit of the project.
But I wish that they could have saved their commentary for later, in the parking lot or the practice field. As I once again used my “teacher voice” to wrap up the hour and get everyone back into the seats and settled, one mother casually commented, “Boy, I guess you HAVE to be strict to keep them quiet, huh?”
An innocent comment to her, but I keep asking myself about it. Did she mean “Wow, you’re good at behavior control?” or did she mean “My kid was right, you are mean!” I don’t know. And for some reason, the smiling kids, the productive classroom, and the friendly happy atmosphere of my class are not enough to reassure me. There is just something so scary about those parent volunteers.