Embracing Uncertainty

November 15, 2017 in Inside SWS

“Ladies and gentlemen, please return to your seats and put on your seat belts. We expect some turbulence ahead.” As the plane begins to lurch, my heart races and I clench the armrests tightly. I try to reassure myself that pilots receive thousands of hours of training and the likelihood of a crash is next to none. But my feelings of fear continue. I think about how I used to love to fly — and how that changed overnight once I become a mother. With the birth of that child (and four to follow) came an immense capacity for love and a desperate longing for safety — and all kinds of fear. Could I be a “good mother?” Could I keep them safe from harm? Could I ensure their lives were filled with happiness and joy, and somehow safeguard them from life’s disappointments and sorrows?

Fear is THE topic of discussion among school leaders across the country. In the past two weeks I have had opportunities to gather with colleagues in both the Northwest Association of Independent Schools and the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, and the conversations have recurring, similar themes. We gather around our tables to brainstorm, commiserate, and wring our hands about how to help parents in our schools let go of, or at least manage, their fear and anxiety. Please don’t misunderstand — the feelings we observe are very real and spring from that same place of love that my white-knuckle flight jitters come from. Our schools are filled with parents who fiercely love their children, are often making great sacrifices to provide this educational experience, and in their words, “just want [child’s name] to be successful.” Gone are the days where you dropped your child off at first grade and picked them up 12 years later, fully educated and ready for college. The world is a far more complicated place today, as is the relationship between parents and teachers.

In his article, “The Fear Equation,” psychologist Michael Thompson identifies seven different fears he observes in parents (and seven in teachers as well — that is for another article!). Of these seven, key worries that resonate for me as both an educator and parent include:

  • Parenting is inherently difficult and no one is expert at it. Everyone begins as an amateur, often feeling incompetent and helpless. “Anything which parents have not learned from experience, they can now learn from their children.”
  • Your child-rearing mistakes are on display through your child’s behavior in ways that you cannot know. Remember your embarrassment at that tantrum in the grocery store?! And how often do we see our own gifts — and flaws — reflected in our children?
  • Every parent is trapped by hope, love — and anxieties. Parents are so vulnerable with respect to their children. Or as Balzac put it, “a mother who is really a mother is never free.” At times your worry breaks through in ways you cannot control.
  • In important ways, you may not know as much about your child as his or her teacher does. Dorit Winter writes about the difference between the subjective love of a parent and the objective love of a teacher in an article aptly titled, “The Tricky Triangle: Children, Parents, and Teachers.” The teacher sees things that a parent cannot, which can create anxiety and tension.
  • Teachers have immense power over children’s lives. Teachers often spend many more waking hours of each day with a child than do the parents. Teachers have the power and opportunity to praise, to support, or to criticize. Parents are keenly aware of teacher power, because as children they had teachers who made them feel wonderful or terrible.

In his book, Teaching, the Joy of Profession, Christof Wiechert depicts the inherent fears described above in a gentler way. He writes, “What does education mean for parents? It means that they always want the best for their children. Whether parents ask this of themselves, or whether they also make this demand on the rest of the world, is up to them. Teachers also always want to offer the best, through their teaching, for the children entrusted to their care. And there’s another point of agreement: in education you can never know what is best, because you can only partly anticipate how education will affect the future. In this realm there is no absolute certainty.”

I would offer, however, that we can have certainty about some things. Your children will be seen and loved by teachers deeply committed to their students’ unfolding as unique human beings. They will be inspired and challenged to take risks and explore their passions, in a safe and supportive community. Your children will experience learning as a joyful and lifelong endeavor, and look for the beauty and goodness in our world. Will there be turbulence? Yes, without a doubt, and we will feel our stomachs lurch with that familiar fear. But these children will be fully prepared to fly their own planes, wherever they choose. Of that we can be certain.

Warmly, Tracy

Published in the Chalkboard from 11.15.17