Is Parental Status Criterion for Teaching Ability?
Here’s the story fueling my fear: Many artists, prior to our sinking economy, could just scrape by - supplementing art sales with part-time teaching gigs. Now, with fewer people buying art, many are looking for full-time jobs. After years spent teaching wonderful weekend kids classes at a small arts center, my friend gave in to economic pressure and started applying for full-time teaching positions.
This woman is a wonderful teacher. Her students create magical sculptures, not cute, cliché objects, but weird mythical creatures and sculptures, inspired by the stories she tells as the kids create. Her students love her, cheerfully chattering and laughing as they employ skillful technique to create some fairly sophisticated works of art.
My friend eagerly anticipated her first interview at an elementary school, with a principal known for her forward-thinking and creative curriculum. Midway through the interview, the principal suddenly asked if she had any kids of her own. My friend is in her late 40’s and she and her husband have no wish, or plans, to have children. My friend was on her guard, and though resenting the question, tried to answer genially. She explained, carefully, that circumstances didn’t favor her having children. The principal then asked her sharply, “Well, do you even LIKE kids?”
My friend was dismayed. At that point, she knew she wasn’t going to get the job. This principal clearly thinks that being childfree means harboring a deep dislike of kids - which means an inability to teach. So much about this interview was wrong, but my friend decided not to challenge it. And, she just landed a teaching job at a high school.
Her interview story still bothers me though. Are other middle-aged teachers being subjected to these invasive questions about parental status? Is this a new phenomenon? Was she asked this question because she was interviewing to teach younger kids, and the assumption of this principal was that a teacher of young kids, especially, must be a substitute mom or dad?
As an education major, I remember being taught to never fall into the mommy role as a teacher. It’s OK to be sympathetic and genial and even nurturing, but taking empathy too far can become enabling of bad behavior and detrimental to good learning habits. And, as both a teacher and a student, I’ve found the most effective teachers to be the least parental.
For example, Mr. Brown was one of the best teachers I remember in middle school. He was a crotchety old coot of a math teacher and made absolutely no pretense of liking any of us. He was a darn good teacher though, and prodded me relentlessly to success on my hated math Regent’s Exams. Mr. Brown was respected precisely because he wasn’t trying to be a parent - protecting his students from our lack of inherent specialness, or the harsh realities (exams) of the world. He taught his students to fight.
I remember reading May Sarton’s The Small Room, a story of careful consideration of the teaching vs. parenting role, thinking it must be terribly difficult to be a teacher and carefully walking that fine line - for the sake of the students. Clearly, the principal who interviewed my friend boldly chose to step over it when she based her assessment of teaching ability on parental status. And, she denied her students the experience of a wonderful teacher!
I’ve heard judgmental parenting comments myself, coming from teachers of college age students. A colleague once asked, “How can you possibly understand what it’s like to be away from home for the first time if you’ve never been a parent yourself?” Huh? I’m supposed to lack some basic understanding of the individuation process because I haven’t experienced it through a child - though I experienced it first hand as a student?
This comment indicates a common phenomenon I’ve noticed. Many parent-teachers somehow, mysteriously, forget what it was like to be a kid. Somehow, the parental authority role completely annihilates any sense of empathy they might have with their students - if they just dug a little deeper and remembered their own childhoods.
Overall, insensitive commentary, and my friend’s disturbing interview, upset me because they indicate a growing disregard for lifestyle differences. If teachers are judged capable solely on the basis of parental status, any person working with young people can be similarly judged. And, forum commentary indicates childfree people are increasingly subjected to insulting and invasive interrogations in any type of workplace.
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