Being a teacher’s child

Chintan Girish Modi

No one’s going to be after her. She can get away with anything. After all, she’s a teacher’s child.
I am not surprised she’s got such good marks in the exam. After all, she’s a teacher’s child.
Let us stay away from him; what if he goes and complains to his mother? After all, he’s a teacher’s child.

cover-story1 Variants of such comments are commonly heard in school canteens and playgrounds. Do teachers’ children really have it so easy because of their parents? Don’t they have to work hard at their studies or follow disciplinary rules? And what about the teacher as parent? How does that double role play out in real life? The wearer knows where the shoe pinches, goes the old saying. We interacted with a few teachers’ children and teachers themselves, and found that their situation is quite contrary to the kind of popular beliefs mentioned above. It is tough being a teacher’s child, and the challenges are numerous.

Sharmila and Shantharam (Shanthu) are siblings who studied at Madhava Kripa School at Manipal, Karnataka. Their mother Shyla Rao taught at the same school. “My mother was not very different at school. She was strict and used to hit me at the drop of a hat at home; she did the same at school. I was not let off the hook at all. In fact, she used to be extra strict with me to avoid being accused of nepotism. My friends felt quite sorry for me,” says Sharmila.

Sreevidya Surendran, who studied at the Gulf Indian School in Kuwait, says that her mother Anuradha was always very conscious of the fact that she was teaching her children – Sreevidya and her brother Shreejith. “Amma could not be too comfortable, since that could have been taken as favouritism. One is always a little tough on one’s own children than the rest. In my mum’s class, I was never allowed to slacken. ”

Sharmila’s mother Shyla agrees that as a teacher, she had to make a conscious effort not only to avoid any partial feelings towards her children, but nip them in the bud. At home, she was amma; at school, she was Shyla teacher. She recalls how her son once called out to her as, “Teacher! Teacher!” when at home and immediately added, “Oh God! I forgot this isn’t school!” She taught her daughter for five months, and her son for two and a half years. Shyla says that it was not difficult for her to balance the roles of teacher and parent, because she is a practical person.

“When a ball thrown by Shanthu was lost, the other kids were wondering if he would escape the fine. But I bought a new ball the next day, and made him give it to the headmaster. Once he was part of a gang that had misbehaved, and all the children were to be punished. Shanthu was the first to receive the punishment,” recalls Shyla. She would refuse to judge events that her children participated in. When her son was in Class III, his friends said that he was lucky to be a teacher’s child, since he could peep into the question paper and score full marks. When Shanthu didn’t make the expected mark, the loose talk died down. “This built up my reputation as one of the most fair and impartial teachers in school,” says Shyla. Once in a while, she does wonder if her overzealous efforts to be perceived as impartial put her children at a disadvantage. This is a reality that teachers’ children often have to live with.

Anuradha says that she had cautioned her children never to do anything that would make the teachers complain. She recognises that the children must have felt pressurised and even irritated when they were expected to be more meticulous than other students especially in terms of uniform, hairstyle, etc. Anuradha adds, “My colleagues did talk to me about my children. I expected them to anyway. Thankfully, their comments were not in anger or irritation but as timely warnings or helpful suggestions when my children slipped up.” Anuradha thinks that a parent who is a teacher has the advantage of knowing where her child stands in terms of aptitude and interests; and one also feels less guilty about leaving the children unattended or in the care of domestic help as other working mothers have to do. Her children’s school time and holidays coincided with her own, and Anuradha saw that was a huge advantage.

Meenaa Sampat taught at Jamnabai Narsee School in Mumbai while her daughter studied there and a little after that. She used to work as a designer with an export firm, but became a teacher so that she could be with her daughter Dhvaani and attend to the child’s needs in her formative years. “In the early years of schooling, it is good to have one’s parent around. I agree that the advantage was more on my side. I would immediately know if my daughter had faltered,” says Meenaa. “It was really nice to have my mother as a teacher in my school. I could travel with her, and I always had her at hand,” Dhvaani says in agreement.

Both Meenaa and Dhvaani admit that things change as the child grows older though. Teenagers are in the process of developing a self-identity, and there is often a felt need to break away from parental supervision. “Teenagers want their freedom. They don’t like parents being around all the time,” says Meenaa. Her daughter confesses to the same. Dhvaani remembers getting quite troubled by the burden of expectations thrust upon her. She says, “Other teachers would threaten to complain to my mother. They would say ‘How can you behave like this?’ even when it was not a big deal. It felt like I was being monitored all the time. I wasn’t this prim and proper girl, but I was expected to be perfect. I was supposed to set an example.” Meenaa adds that her daughter was told that she ought to know how to behave; that was the baggage that came with being a teacher’s child. Every little mistake of Dhvaani’s was magnifi ed, even things that would have been overlooked if done by another child. Sharmila and Shantharam faced the same problem; so did Sreevidya.

Sreevidya was taught not only by her mother, but her aunt and uncle as well – all at the same school. While talking to her, I realise that teachers’ children perhaps miss out on all the fun and mischief that is an integral part of school life for many children. “I was very conscious of being a teacher’s child. I had certain extra responsibilities. I had to be a good student. I could never be lax about my studies. Else, people would go – Oh my God! She’s a teacher’s child… Look at her! I could never slip up. It was like having 20 mothers and fathers, everyone making a special effort to pick on me,” she says.

play-ground Anuradha points out that her daughter Sreevidya had few friends in school and probably missed a lot of fun because she lived up to the standards of being a teacher’s child. Sreevidya could not bring herself to do the fun things that bind students – like copying homework or tests, making fun of teachers, etc. However, Sreevidya’s brother Shreejith who studied in the same school has many friends, and Anuradha is surprised how. “My son does not copy, but he doesn’t get great marks either. He imitates most of his teachers even in front of them and gets away with it. While my daughter probably understood my ideas and behaved suitably, my son never considered such caution necessary. He would behave just like he did at home, showing the same intimacy and familiarity. I suppose I let him and got used to it myself. It happened also because he was similarly informal with all his other teachers as well. Perhaps after seeing my elder child’s plight, I didn’t set such high standards for him,” says Anuradha.

Being a teacher’s child can turn into a label that the child just cannot shrug off, however hard he or she may try. This can be very frustrating. It is almost as if being a teacher’s child is the only form of recognition that the child can ever get; and that he or she is incapable of doing anything worthwhile on his or her own merit. Sharmila shares a personal experience. Even when she shifted schools, and got admitted to a place where she did not have her mother to turn to, her Mathematics teacher kept insisting that Sharmila performed well only because her mother Shyla taught her at home. Sharmila resented this because her mother never taught her at home. Anuradha also mentions that a teacher’s child is sometimes exposed to unfair treatment by classmates, even when the child wins prizes or scores higher marks.

Despite the challenges faced by teachers and children, there is sometimes a bright side to look at. Sreevidya says that a teacher’s child has the advantage of knowing what teachers go through. When her friends talked about the teachers they disliked and why they did so, Sreevidya was not able to participate. She, therefore, found it difficult to connect with her peer group. “When someone condemned a teacher, I would say – She is working so hard for you. Why are you being so ungrateful? I knew those teachers as persons. I knew they were really nice people… In any case, it’s a good life being a teacher’s child. It makes you richer. You can be nutty and completely mad, but you retain a core of seriousness that brings out the mature side in you.”

Choose with caution

Annie Thomas, Principal of Sharon English School in Mulund, Mumbai was clear about the fact that she wanted her daughters Jennifer and Judith to join another school. She was the Headmistress when her daughters were of school-going age. She says, “We had a feeling that our children might become very spoilt if they went to the same school. Even if our children made mistakes, the teachers would be apprehensive of reprimanding them. The children might take advantage of this, and think they could get away with anything. We felt that our children would not be able to grow in such an environment. We wanted them to be treated as normal children, without any special treatment.”

However, the younger daughter Judith did study at Sharon English School for two years. “I felt that my daughter was feeling an emotional vacuum because I was not able to spend much time with her. She did not seem to be coping well, so I thought it might be a good idea to bring her to my school for a couple of years. Once she could manage on her own, we sent her to another school,” says the mother.

Annie Thomas says that she does not encourage teachers at her school to have their own children study there because of the various problems that could arise. She says that a teacher’s child might be given too much importance by other children, and he/she may use his/her parent’s position to bully others.

On the other hand, there maybe cases where a teacher’s child has to be over cautious about the way – he/she conducts himself/herself, to take care of his/her parent’s reputation. Apart from this, teachers who are parents may try to work against the rules of the school management when it comes to matters like completing homework, or passing the lunch box to the child while a class is in progress.

Jennifer Thomas, Annie’s daughter, says that having your parents run the school is different from having your parents simply teach in the same school. She feels that studying at her mother’s school could have been problematic for her, for two reasons. Firstly, because she might have got preferential treatment. Secondly, because she would have found it difficult to take criticism regarding the school management.

Role conflict

Role confusion is not confined to the teacher-parent-child issue, but affects many other arenas of work and life as well. There can be situations where a boss is also a spouse or a parent, or a sibling is also a colleague. Role conflicts are the stuff of films and novels, so we’re all familiar with the drama that arises when roles become extreme or polarised.

Each of us finds our own ways to deal with such conflicts, and perhaps arrives at an equilibrium that has everything to do with experience and little to do with logic and reason.

When you decide to become a teacher in your child’s school, or when your child enters a school where you have been a teacher, you suddenly find your loyalties divided and you have to fight one or the other role constantly. When a child is very young it may be difficult to get him or her to accept that there may be boundaries drawn around you in school that he or she may not be able to cross. However, at this stage there are relatively few issues that may cause problems, and as long as you as the adult are able to maintain a distinction in your mind, these years can pass without too much heartache.

As the child grows into middle school, areas of conflict begin to surface. Your personal and professional politics and values, if divergent, can create problems. You also may find yourself being called upon to justify or defend your child’s behaviour to other teachers or the management.

The best way to cope with these conflicts is to try and maintain an open dialogue with your child, and discuss the difficulties you face in managing the two roles. When a child is taken into confidence, a higher degree of sensitivity may develop not only to your own problems or constraints as a teacher, but to other teachers as well.

Analyse your own behaviour across the two roles and see where the divergence occurs – the happiest people are those who are able to apply a single set of values across contexts and maintain a sense of integrity and unity across roles. That’s a tall order, but not impossible.

And above all, maintain a sense of humour – laugh with your child about what happens at school, so that you and your child can retain perspective. Your role as your child’s teacher is important, no doubt, but even more important is your role as parent!

The author is an M.Phil student at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Reply