What does it take to be a great parent?

Does this question have the same answer as “What does it take to be a great teacher?” Because it is common to hear someone say “There’s no manual on how to raise a child perfectly”, yet there are hundreds if not thousands of books on how to be “an effective teacher”.  Whether or not being effective in one’s teaching equates to being perfect is highly debatable.  It is much safer to say (as with parenting) that teaching gets better through experience, openness to change, and more importantly trial and error.

This may be comforting to the average parent/teacher – that no one should be expected to be perfect at the outset.  However, for many parents and teachers in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of America, not getting things right the first, second or third time can be costly. That’s because, for the most part, the responsibility of raising or teaching a child in environments such as theirs feels like carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Imagine standing before a child who is either (a) homeless, (b) parentless, (c) illiterate, (d) struggling with math, (e) struggling with English, (f) bullied, (g) pressured to join a gang, (h) pressured to sell or use drugs, (i) afraid to walk home after school, (j) depressed, (k) emotionally distant?  Imagine hundreds of children, each who are A-K wrapped up in one?  What would you say or do that would drastically change the course of their lives, for the better?

Many people don’t have the courage to even talk about, let alone stand before, such a child.  That’s why they’ve chosen not to teach, that’s why they avoid tough conversations about poverty and racial injustice, or paint these conversations with politically correct brush strokes. But then there are those, out of sympathy, conviction or guilt, who dare to stand in front of these children Monday through Friday between the hours of 7am-6pm.

Taking a stand (literally and figuratively) is an initial step towards making something happen in the life of a child.  It’s not enough, though.  And this is not a critique of those who teach or those who lead them – this is an argument to reflect on the most critical piece to dramatic change in the lives of marginalized youth.  A call on educators to be more secure within themselves.

“Insecure people cannot serve others, because they’re too afraid of what others will think…only secure people can serve others.”  This is a quote from Rick Warren, directed more towards a general path to self identity, but just as relevant to the responsibilities of parenting and educating.  There’s a huge difference between a parent secure in his/her authority over a child, and one who redirects a child with trepidation.  The same goes for educators – to lead and, most importantly, serve the children placed in our care, we must be secure within ourselves.

Rick Warren goes on to say that if you consider others from a point of view of “Who here needs my help, and how best can I serve them?” versus “What is everyone thinking about me?” you are in a much better position to exude security and succeed in your service.  For those of you who have not cowered away from the challenge of serving children with issues A-K, it’s time to reflect on Rick’s first question and proceed accordingly.

Yes, there are people watching you – principals who are evaluating your every move, the media and politicians critiquing your union and fellow colleagues, and parents who may or may not make your job easier.  But if you are more concerned with what you can do day-by-day with every child you educate, those other distractions will more than likely fade away.  Only then can we get to the core of what we were commissioned to do.

And again, this is not a critique of anyone in any position whatsoever.  Real obstacles exist – lack of supplies, lack of space, lack of support, lack of time.  Unfortunately,  some educators are expected to do the most with the least – to work miracles with barely enough to get by.  My hope is that you still will not give up, that you will find strength in numbers and from within.  And as you ignore the darts thrown your way, you’ll spark a wildfire of change that, like the sun, burns indefinitely.