The Teacher as Surrogate Parent

Teachers not only teach—they nurture and guide

Alger Libby

This article is reprinted with permission of The Spin, published in March 2007 (volume 3, number 2) by Edmonton Public Teachers Local. Minor changes have been made to the original text in order to conform to ATA style.

Although teachers may have varying opinions about the role they play in the lives of children and youth, those who have taught for awhile agree that tremendous sociological implications are inherent in the endeavour of public education.

Teachers graduate from university believing that all they have to do is get learner objectives out of the program of studies and into students’ heads, but within the first few hours of their first assignment, they realize that this task becomes clouded by the harsh tonic of living out the human experience in a unique community.

I remember meeting a Grade 2 teacher who maintained a “proper and professional distance” from her students. Everything was going well until a young male student got cancer. The teacher’s lofty ideology disappeared, as C.S. Lewis said, “Like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.”

The teacher got wrapped up in the drama that was unfolding in this boy’s family, and she became a regular visitor to the Stollery Children’s Hospital, in Edmonton. Along with his family, the teacher rode the emotional rollercoaster that runs when fate behaves most cruelly. The child survived his ordeal, but his childhood experience left an indelible mark on all the adults who shared in it. The teacher learned that the parameters of professionalism can easily become blurred, and she was forced to redefine her philosophy of teaching. I hope that none of us will ever have to deal with such a circumstance, but most of us have been affected emotionally by students during our teaching journey.

Society recognizes that teachers are in a powerful position to reach beyond anything that can be measured on a provincial achievement test. Character education, antibullying campaigns, roots of empathy, snack programs and daily physical activity are worthwhile projects designed to reach beyond the student’s intellect into those places that help us all to understand what it means to be a good citizen of a healthy community. After all, school is often the first place where a child engages a community outside of his or her immediate family. That’s why we see so many tears on that infamous first day of Grade 1. It’s a painful voyage to leave the security of family for the uncertainty of society. And later in life, isn’t the capricious behaviour of adolescents really a confused search for how the dual nature of life—private and public—should be balanced?

The longer I teach, the more I realize that sometimes I have to fill in the gaps for students who aren’t getting the full-meal deal at home. Public education is about education for all. We have students from rich and poor families, healthy and dysfunctional ones, and temporary families (foster care).

Schools and teachers are not elitists—we teach the whole shebang. “Respect your elders.” “Put others’ needs before your own.” “Wait your turn.” “Say please and thank you.” “Don’t waste.” “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” “Don’t speak while others are speaking.” “Physical violence is always wrong.” “Everyone has feelings.” These mantras are never far from my lips during any given school day. For some children, I reinforce what they are learning at home. For others, I am a voice crying out in the wilderness. I teach students how to borrow when they’re subtracting, but I also teach them how to be an integral part of the human family.

Over the years that I’ve been teaching, the majority of my students have come from wonderful homes with loving parents. But I’ve also taught children that came to school in -30°C with no socks on their feet, let alone a proper winter coat, toque and gloves. I’ve taught students who continuously arrived at school without a lunch. Some students have been absent or late for half the school year, while others disappeared from the community without saying goodbye. One young girl’s family left the community so quickly that the parents abandoned the girl’s school supplies, including her indoor shoes, in my classroom. You wonder what circumstances fuelled such a midnight run. I’ve also had students whose parents I’ve never met, not even during Christmas concerts. Other students have come to my classroom with shockingly poor behaviour. I’ve had students with brilliant minds and others who could not perform the simplest of mathematical or literary tasks. As the teacher of all these students, I have tried every strategy and every district and community resource to ensure none of the students fell through the cracks. I have done my best to see that all their needs are met: physical, emotional, social, spiritual and intellectual. Most days, I am convinced that my profession is not so much a learning one as it is a humanizing one. Or maybe being a learner and becoming human are so inextricably linked that we would be fools to try to separate them.

Some teachers bemoan every aspect of our profession that has them dealing with things that should be taken care of at home. But, with all due respect to these teachers, we might as well admit that we are in the grips of a developmental enterprise. We cannot separate the different aspects of a maturing human being any more than we can separate grey hair from aging. Our students are not going to stand at the school entrance each day and announce: “For the next seven hours I will only be a learner.” As soon as they cross the school’s threshold, they are going to build friendships, lose friendships, engage in conflicts, scrape their knees, encounter sportsmanship and, in Divisions 3 and 4, maybe fall in and out of love.

If teachers are in the business of manufacturing healthy, productive, knowledgeable and compassionate citizens, then the best scenario can only be a healthy partnership between home and school. But the nature of the school community dictates that teachers have to pick up the slack for those students whose homes aren’t functioning properly.

Each of us is many things to many people. I am a husband, father, son, teacher, friend and colleague. I am a person of specific political and religious views, and I jealously protect my right to guard and defend my views—even modifying them as age and experience lend new insights. In my life, I have experienced great joy and great sorrow. I love, but I also hate; I believe, yet I doubt; I am brave, but I fear; I hope, yet I despair. This great compendium of paradoxes is me: the person who stands before students each day.

How can I expect those young people that I spend so many hours with every day to ever meet me on the very road I walk? Outside the safety and security of their homes, students will experience similar emotions—emotions that can be confusing and frightening when you are an adult, let alone when you are young. Who will usher the students through this maze of life when they are away from their homes? Who will help them direct their behaviour towards appropriate responses to the realities of life? Outside the home, there is only one adult with immediate access to a young person who is confronting the winds and waves of life. Let us live out our vocation with eyes open. That adult is the teacher, who not only guides learning, but stands in loco parentis.

Alger Libby teaches Grade 3 at Belmont Elementary School, in Edmonton.