Raising children is a process that takes years. At least 18 :) And in this time, we have to teach and support our children as they grow and mature. But what should or shouldn't we teach?
The word teach is unhelpfully ambiguous.[i] If we think of it as an all-encompassing job as educators in the broadest sense, then parents can be teachers. We teach our children to apologise when they are wrong, play with others, and resolve disagreements. Teaching can also refer to different kinds of approaches (teach by questioning, teach by telling). And it can imply a range of purposes (to inform, expand awareness, develop performance ability).
So, are parents teachers?
Before we dig a bit deeper into this question, here are a few interesting facts about teachers:
- Blind, mute, and deaf Hellen Keller lived a long life as a successful and inspiring writer, lecturer, and activist. None of this would have been possible without her teacher Anne Sullivan, the woman we remember as the “miracle worker.”
- Maria Montessori, who established the Montessori method, had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the third time when she passed away in 1952, at the age 81.
- Jaime Escalante, well known for teaching mathematics at Garfield High School, was born in Bolivia but moved to the U.S. at an early age. Because of his teaching style and inspiration, student performance improved dramatically, mainly due to his passionate style, dedication, and love for teaching.
Now, back to parents. First, let’s focus on more explicit, school-like teaching. You know, handouts, definitions, tasks….
I remember being on a video call with a friend of mine (before online schooling and corona), when she proudly showed me how her, at that time, 3.5-year-old son was in the middle of his writing/reading worksheet. Not because he loved letters and showed interest in them, but because he didn't. And she wanted to make sure that he enters school knowing how to read and write. So, there he was, sitting at his desk, connecting the dots, and writing the missing letters. Because he wasn't into it.
Don't get me wrong; parents are definitely in charge of creating a stimulating home learning environment where the value of education is reinforced. Parents should read with and to their children, play games that develop phonemic awareness, ask questions, cook together with their kids, talk about letters and numbers on car plates.
And yes, give them worksheets if the child likes numbers and loves worksheets.
We came a long way from believing that teaching is “best left to teachers”[ii] to parents doing what teachers do during the corona pandemic. It might seem that teaching is something all parents can do. And some parents even want to take it a step further. One survey of 2,000 UK adults found that 3% said they had ‘been thinking about becoming a teacher and I wasn’t before the coronavirus lockdown.’[iii]
Parents are definitely the first teachers children have. They are instrumental in teaching a range of social skills, including taking turns, greeting others and remembering to say “please” and “thank you”. Parents (should) teach their children about the wonders of nature, importance of asking questions, and reading. Cooking and cleaning. They (should) teach their children why education matters.
However, teachers, just like doctors, lawyers, architects, and engineers, go to school. Like real schools for teachers. And there they acquire and develop competences, which are basic requirements for teaching.
Some of those competences are:[iv]
- subject matter knowledge
- pedagogical subject knowledge
- pedagogical knowledge
- curricular knowledge
- educational science foundations (intercultural, historical, philosophical, psychological, sociological knowledge)
- contextual, institutional, organisational aspects of educational policies
Other competences are more oriented towards planning, managing and coordinating teaching, and using teaching materials and technologies.
The response we like the best
The most reasonable answer my husband and I (both educated teachers) heard was during a meeting with our kids’ future teachers. One of the parents asked if we should buy some additional books and teach our kids to read and count to prepare them for school. The director of the school said that children learn every day—they observe, do, play, and learn. Parents and teachers should work together. But we, the parents, should be exactly that—parents. And we should let teachers do the teaching.
To conclude, parents are teachers.
- We teach our children basic life skills. How? By playing with them, talking and listening. Cooking together and going grocery shopping. Teaching them to look after their pets and resolve issues among themselves.
- We teach them to read. How? By spending hours and hours reading with them. Asking questions and talking about books and characters in stories. Answering their questions about letters, words, colours, and illustrations. We play games such as "I spy with my little eye something with letter...", sing different rhymes and play with words.
- We teach them numeracy. How? By counting ducks at a lake, laying the table and counting plates. Singing "Five little ducks" and similar rhymes. By teaching them their address (street and number), counting stairs on our way to a train station.
- We teach them science. How? By making snowmen and talking about winter. Observing how they melt. Watching the stars and talking about the Universe. Making rainbows with sprinkles in the garden.
And then, once they start school, we support and appreciate their teachers. If the child wants to learn more, we show them how. As they grow, we encourage them to ask questions and look for answers.
But, when it comes to school-like teaching, preparing worksheets, tasks (fill in, match, connect, answer the questions), analysing poems... parents should be parents.
You can read more about this topic in my book: Parenting, Easier Said Than Done?
[i] Wiggins, G. & McTighe (2007). What is the teacher’s job when teaching? In: G. Wiggins & J. McTighe (Eds.) Schooling by design: Mission, action, and achievement. Beauregard: ASCD
[ii] Ritter, P. L., Mont-Reynaud, R. & Dombusch, S. M. (1993). Minority parents and their youth: Concern, encouragement, and support for school achievement. In: E. F. Chavkin (Ed.) Families and schools in pluralistic society (107-120). Albany: State University of New York.
[iii] Home schooling boosts parents' interest in teaching as a career. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/30/home-schooling-boosts-parents-interest-in-teaching-as-a-career (27.06.2020)
[iv] Caena, F. (2011). Literature review teachers’ core competences: Requirements and development. European Commission.