For as long as I can remember, my response to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” never really changed. The answer always came back to fulfilling two dreams: I wanted to be a teacher and I wanted to be a dad.
A decade ago, I realized the former. I landed a job teaching in an amazingly diverse, supportive, and forward-thinking district. Over the course of my tenure there, I have had the privilege to teach classes of third, fifth, sixth, and seventh graders and have loved the experiences.
As a teacher, I have been given the chance to pilot new classroom technologies, try new innovative best practices, take creative risks pushing rigorous content, and even lead professional development sessions for my colleagues. This is not always the case for educators in most districts; to say I have been lucky is an understatement. Dream 1? Check!
Last fall, my wife and I got the surprise of a lifetime when we found out we were having twins. After a long, unforgiving pregnancy (it turns out my wife is, in fact, a superhero), we were blessed with our two amazing kids, Francesca and Henry. We walked out of the hospital together five days later as a family – everyone healthy, everyone beautiful. Dream 2? Nailed it!
I’m in my mid-thirties and have achieved the two major milestone goals I have been working towards for a third of century. So now what? Anyone who is either an educator or a parent knows how loaded that question really is.
A Different Kind of “Working Vacation”
Whether it is teaching or parenthood, you have to hone a craft to be effective at it.
This summer I have found myself in a unique position. Typically, my “months off” in July and August are spent attending and leading professional development opportunities at my school. This summer is different. I feel the undeniable pull to be home spending time doing whatever I can to both support and enjoy my family. So this year, while I am heading in a for a few professional development sessions here and there, I’ve cut way back.
My heart and my calendar both know this summer is all about clearing my plate and working to be the best father I can be (Full disclosure: it has been an amazing journey so far and I would not trade it for anything!). However, part of my summer brain will always be in “How can I make this upcoming school year even better?”-mode.
In my quest to satiate that nagging craving to improve my teaching practice, I came to one conclusion that instantly erased that pull towards the school: the majority of the lessons I’m learning to best serve my newborn twins will also be lessons I can apply to my seventh graders in the fall.
For instance, here are some of the things my twins have already taught me this summer:
Not all cries are the same
Babies cry. Anyone expecting a child has to know this going in.
As parents of twins, my wife and I were prepared for a life perpetually without silence. Luckily, we were blessed with two fairly even-keeled babies that have been quite kind to our ears. Now don’t get me wrong, these babies cry; but when they do, there’s usually a solid reason.
At first, sorting out why we had an upset child meant running a checklist of potential causes. We would look for the usual suspects: signs of illness, hunger, a loaded diaper, gas, clothing issues… After some detective work, the problem would be discovered, solved, and we would be a few cuddles away from having content babies again. Things started to change once my wife and I started honing in on the actual sounds Henry and Francesca were making.
Just telling the difference between the babies’ voices was tough enough at the start. Over time, though, it has gotten easier. My wife and I have not only gotten better at identifying which baby is crying, but also what the actual cries themselves are telling us.
Is Henry in a full-blown huff? Time to fill the tank!
Is Francesca starting to whimper and squirm? She’s gotten a limb free from her swaddle.
Is Francesca hitting notes only the dogs can hear? Call the EPA; her diaper is probably an ecological disaster.
For me, these experiences have reinforced the notion that so much of vocal communication comes down to the voice’s musical qualities like rhythm, pitch, and intonation. When your ear starts to latch onto to those aspects as effectively as it can actual words, you end up with a clearer picture of what someone is really saying. Without really trying, caring for babies has definitely helped hone my ability to hear.
I already know this will make a big difference on my capacity to manage and support a classroom full of students. As it stands, I am pretty good at picking up on student remarks so that I can swoop in for a teachable moment or redirect students slipping off task. Not to pat myself on the back too hard, but I can still pick out a strong whisper from across the room (despite a youth spent blasting my eardrums with a Walkman and 90s rock).
This year, I am going to make it a point to focus on what my students’ voices are saying beyond just the words they are forming. Henry and Francesca have shown me that dialing into the wordless aspects of students’ vocalizations can be just as important as catching every word they say. I know that at times I have failed to consider tone when hearing what a student is trying to communicate. Thanks to my babies, I am confident I will be better attuned this year.
Boundaries are Adjustable
One of the most challenging responsibilities that comes with being either a teacher or a parent is setting boundaries for kids. Teachers create limits to help students focus and keep their learning environment productive. In a classroom, this means creating a management plan including things like behavior expectations, seating arrangements, and daily routines.
With newborns, there are really only so many limits to set. So far, it seems like the most important set of boundaries for our twins has been when to let them stretch and flail their little limbs and when to swaddle them up like little snuggly burritos.
In both cases, too much freedom can mean an onrush of overstimulation and distractibility. For students, a lack of boundaries can increase the likelihood of getting off task or making poor decisions. For our babies, not having the security of a tight cuddle can mean certain daily routines (like sleep) are harder to accomplish.
However, knowing when to loosen boundaries can be just as important as establishing them in the first place. When students feel things like tight regimentation or overly prescriptive tasks are boxing them in, they can become frustrated and disengaged. Similarly, if you leave a baby swaddled when they don’t want to be, they’ll let you know!
Knowing how to finely tune the balance between limits and freedoms is a tricky proposition. Good parents and teachers have to be zeroed-in on where the ever-changing thresholds need to be at any given moment.
When things are running smoothly, you can afford to offer up more freedoms to help kids gain a greater sense of autonomy and responsibility. On the other hand, when it seems like freedom is starting to teeter over towards anarchy, there is nothing wrong with tightening the reins to get things back on track.
Regardless of their ages, kids need boundaries. The key for adults is staying dialed in to be able to keep those boundaries flexible enough to promote a balance of growth and accountability. I feel like this is something I have always known, but my new dynamic duo has really cinched it in for me.
Never Underestimate a Healthy Grain of Salt
From the moment my wife and I shared the news that our little bundles of joy were on the way, we were bombarded with advice from all sides. Everyone seemed to know exactly how to survive the pregnancy, what we needed to register for, how we should set up our nursery, and what we would need to do to be great parents.
Don’t get me wrong, I will listen to any advice that anyone is willing to offer. However, there was a glaring issue with most of the advice we received: it came from people with the same total lack of twin experience as we had.
Having twins is totally different than raising one newborn at a time. It just is.
To start with, a twin pregnancy is immediately considered high-risk; that means more unpredictable symptoms, a bunch of extra trips to the doctor, and a whole lot more uncertainty and nervousness about what could go wrong.
Then, once the twins arrive, everything takes twice as long as with a single baby. Each day has twice as many potential issues to go along with double the daily routines (i.e. twice the mouths to feed and diapers to change). Making things even more interesting, the things that work for one baby don’t necessarily work for the other. It’s a loving ball of constant chaos.
I could go on, but If you have never experienced twin parenting, there’s really no way to do it justice in words.
As such, my wife and I learned (very quickly) to take unsolicited advice with a big grain of salt. We knew people were just trying to help. While some words of wisdom were useful, some were not so much. Regardless, we listened and were, at the very least, grateful that people cared enough to offer.
Teachers face this same conundrum, too. We are inundated with advice and “new” best practices (sometimes solicited, sometimes not) from colleagues, professional development sessions, and administrators. Sometimes the advice is super helpful. Other times, the advice is truly great, but it comes at a point where it is not immediately useful. At its worst, you receive suggestions that seem completely ignorant to what actually is going on in your classroom with your students.
Nevertheless, whether you are a parent or a teacher, the advice will continue to pour in. In the end, teachers know their students, their own pedagogical strengths, and what just works. Parents know their children and find ways to make the right decisions for their families. The key is having a nice shaker of salt handy to help shrug off what is not relevant and continue doing your best for the sake of your kids.
With all the things parenthood would bring to the table, I never though professional development would be one of them. It amazes me how the needs of my 12-year-old students really are not that different from those of my 6-week-old children.
All middle school immaturity jokes aside, by spending the summer working hard to hone in on the needs of my newborns, I’m serving both my family and my future students. Ultimately, this connection has finally allowed me to sleep more soundly this summer: it turns out sometimes the best professional development is personal development.
…Just kidding! I’m the father of twin babies. I don’t sleep…
Sheldon Soper is a content writer for The Knowledge Roundtable. He is also a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings and on his blog.