I stared at this collection of digits for a few moments, letting the gravity of the moment sink in. This was the birth year that a student listed for her parents on a cultural genogram project; it is also the year that I was born. Throughout the years that I have assigned this project requiring the identification of when family members were born, I knew that the day would eventually come when I would legitimately declare that I am old enough to be my students’ parent.
Don’t worry, this blog is not a Christian scholar’s lament on the inevitability of getting older. But this brief moment of reflection while grading has led me to the keyboard, typing thoughts on how I sometimes take on a parental role when interacting with my students, for better or for worse.
When I was a new faculty member, a wise colleague shared that she regularly reminds students of interpersonal boundaries, offering something to the effect of, “I am not your mother. I do not do your laundry” (By the way, I actually taught my students how to do laundry – see this CSR blog piece. But I digress). For most faculty, we have our own “I do not do your laundry” version of the line (or a strategy) whenever we wish to convey to students that our approach to teaching and mentoring them differs from a parental one. And yes, I say emphatically as a father of two adolescent girls, in no way am I equating the level of difficulty and complexity involved in parenting with what comes up in the higher education classroom. For those of you who are parents: if you were to create a list of how parenting differs from teaching, I bet it would be a quick and decisive list.
Even so, following my epiphany moment while grading, I could not help but think about the various ways that my teaching is similar to how I parent my children.
Though I must be clear, I am not claiming in this blog that only professors with parenting experiences can demonstrate the below teaching skills. I know of numerous faculty colleagues and friends who are not parents, but they demonstrate a deep, parental compassion and love for their students that I can only hope to emulate.
Here are a few initial thoughts about how I see my parental approaches overlapping with teaching:
1.I love my children equally, but I also love them differently. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to effective parenting. Similarly, I strive to be as fair as possible to my students, but my pedagogical strategies, and how I relate to them, might necessarily differ. Let me share two brief examples. One, for the final project in my Cross-Cultural Psychology class, I offer three options: a cultural genogram, a cultural developmental essay, or a self-assessment of cultural constructs. Each assignment is (I would like to think) equal in the amount of work, and gets at similar learning objectives, but they also offer students a way to engage their cultural backgrounds using their preferred reflection/assessment tools. Two, the differential teaching approach also comes into play whenever I dialogue with students about cultural identity development models. In a classroom of 35 students, I can reasonably expect that students will be wide-ranging in their identity exploration and commitment. Some might be at a place of unexamined identity, while others might be much further along in their identity development. To be able to tailor conversations with students about their identities and to challenge students appropriately with personally relevant action steps are things that I am learning to do on a more consistent basis in my classrooms. I must admit, this requires much more intentionality, on my part, in getting to know my students, but the reward reflected in student learning is worth the effort.
2.Reciprocated affection is a nice thing to have, but not a necessary condition. That is, sometimes my children will not like me; in moments of frustration or despair, they might even verbalize that sentiment to me. I haven’t yet had students say to my face, “I hate you, Professor Kim.” But I know of many times when they were likely thinking it, or if they were not thinking it, they felt frustrated by the decisions that I made. The other day, for example, I had some students push back about the format of the final exam in the course. Even after engaging students in dialogues about their disagreements, I decided to ultimately stick to my decision and say, “I hear you and understand you. But I am going to keep the exam as is, for the reasons that I articulated to you.” That sounds a lot like what I sometimes say to my daughters.
3.But parenting also requires Christ-like meekness. It calls for the genuine humility of admitting when I am wrong, and if it is possible, to correct the wrongdoing. To be candid, in my arrogant, sinful nature, this type of self-effacing is much more difficult to do than #2 above; it is relatively easy to mask my own stubbornness as a “courage of my own convictions.” But what about the times when my students would benefit from – and indeed, learn from – correction of an error for which I am responsible? It could be an actual error that needs to be corrected, for example, on an exam question; or it could be a moment of interpersonal shortcoming that requires me to genuinely ask for forgiveness. Whenever I am faced with these difficult moments, I earnestly lift up a prayer to God for me to be able to swallow my pride for the benefit of my students.
4.Parenting is full of joy but also lined with heartaches. Of course, my students do not break my heart to the degree that my children can, but they can certainly trigger a healthy amount of angst within me. Those are the moments when I lift up prayers for patience (1 Corinthians 13:4; Colossians 3:12) and for protection against weariness (Galatians 6:9).
5.Parenting is interspersed with moments that lead you to exclaim a variation of the statement, “You grew up so fast!” This feeling is salient whenever graduation and related celebrations come around in the academic year. Especially for those students whom I first met as incoming students (or as high school students attending an admissions event); those who I observed experiencing significant trials during their collegiate years but who persevered and maximized their Christian liberal arts education; those who make delightful connections between psychological theories and everyday living, including how Christian faith animates psychological science. In observing these amazing and gifted emerging adults, I am prone to rhetorically declaring in my head, “How did you grow up so fast?” and a corollary of the statement, “How blessed am I to be able to teach and journey with you.”
I know that this is one Christian scholar’s (and one parent’s) list, and I am curious about how else teaching might look like parenting in your context. Also, what other roles might a professor take on besides parenting when teaching and mentoring college students (e.g., pastoral? Friend-like?) Feel free to share your ideas!