Wednesday, March 23, 2011

EDUCATORS:

Teaching yours, raising theirs


By REBECCA MEANY

The pre-dawn quiet is broken by an alarm clock at 6 a.m. Like many households in the Wood River Valley, the Wolfrom family has a full schedule ahead of them this weekday morning.

There are children to ready for school and a busy day of work to prepare for. But Maritt Wolfrom doesn't jump out of bed right away. As usual, Kaia, 7, is the first one up and has crawled in for a chat. Wolfrom, a mother of two children and a teacher at Wood River High School, allows herself this small luxury for a few minutes more.

Between putting on the coffee and jumping in the shower, Wolfrom turns her attention to her other child, Finn, 5, who is slower to rouse from his warm bed. A puppy needs to be walked, lunches made, the day's plans discussed with husband Craig. Action quickens, motivated by the clock.

Dad helps get the kids off to school, and Wolfrom switches gears. Arriving at her school before 8 a.m. for early meetings, she pushes lesson plans for her government and world history classes to the back of her mind so she can focus on the agenda.

During the week, she also will be stepping into other roles: advisor to the school's Amnesty International club, advisor for a model United Nations club, and building representative for the school's union. Her children's needs are replaced for the time being by her students' needs and the demands of her job. The day, like most days, will be nonstop kids.

Though there is no single way that teachers who have children manage their myriad responsibilities, most will readily admit that despite the challenges maintaining work-life balance, there is no life more satisfying. Along the way, however, education professionals learn to strike that balance and excel at both roles. Methods they employ may be implementing new ideas, creating efficiencies, finding positives or just learning to accept what they cannot change.

Wolfrom's approach is to make every day, or at least every year, like new.

"I try to stay innovative and fresh so I can stay interested," she said. "I get bored if I do the same lesson plans every year. That's one of the reasons kids enjoy my classes. I take them on trips, and we're innovative with what they read and write. Some people are biding their time, waiting for retirement. I don't want to be that person."

The natural side effect is that kids are engaged, she said. It's not uncommon for students to seek her out for discussions about politics or history. Though it takes extra time to interact with kids outside the classroom, and to really encourage them to think critically, the benefits are obvious.

"It's important to make sure our kids are successful."

Carla Scanlon knew from an early age that children would factor significantly in her life. She and her husband, Owen, have six kids, and she spent nearly two decades teaching—14 and a half years at Hailey Elementary School and another three at Woodside Elementary School.

"I realized that the teaching profession would allow me to be intimately involved with every aspect of learning long after each of my children was old enough to learn outside of the home," Scanlon said.

Indeed, Scanlon maintains, there are more positives than negatives to the teacher-as-parent overlap.

"I think good teachers are also good parents," she said. "Teaching and parenting are inherently similar."

Maritt Wolfrom with daughter Kaia, 7, and son Finn, 5, sharing long anticipated giggles and cuddles at day’s end. The other half of Wolrom’s day is devoted to other people’s kids, preparing high schoolers for their futures. Courtesy photo by Craig Wolfrom
In addition, she said, more teachers are taking on roles traditionally left to parents, so experience in both realms can make it easier for teachers to handle nonacademic issues students may bring to school.

Hemingway Elementary School Principal Don Haisley was a bachelor when he started his 21-year classroom teaching career, but then came marriage and the advent of fatherhood.

"Having my own kids changed things," he said. "It gave me a whole new perspective."

Reciprocally, being an educator helped him understand children better. With that understanding came even more enjoyment.

"There were times when I'd say, 'I've spent my entire day with kids.' But I entered my profession because I enjoy working with kids."

The school routine allowed him a lot of time with his own children while his wife often worked 24-hour shifts as an emergency room doctor.

"Raising kids in the system," he said of their similar schedules, "I actually found it easier than working outside of it."

Many commitments, some sacrifices

There are few moments in the day when Lane Kirkland is not around children. A father of six kids ages 6 to 16, Kirkland teaches grades seven through 12 at Carey School. Interacting with kids in his government, economics, American history and physical education classes is followed by after-school and weekend activities as head football coach and head girls' track coach.

"I've got a lot going on," he said.

Still, he shows no sign of fatigue or frustration.

"I love it," he said. "I'm used to working hard. We get tired, but it's our life, and it's a great one."

Yes, there are a few sacrifices.

"Any time a person coaches, they're giving up family time. But we do our best to make up for it in the off-season."

Having two of his daughters on the track team allows for extra time with them after school, and having had some of his kids in the classroom means he knows what homework they have and whether it gets done.

Like many teachers, Kirkland says the sacrifices are outweighed by the rewards.

"I love spending time with kids and influencing them in a positive way," he said.

Sometimes the influence works in reverse.

"Every day a kid teaches me something," he said. "I always try to take that to heart to improve and to learn from it. That's why this job is very rewarding."

The love for kids and the joy of being around them is not lost on the children themselves. Students respond to interested, engaged teachers. And, ideally, they recognize how that benefits them. On occasion, they go out of their way to make sure their feelings are known. Earlier this month, students in Wood River High School's National Honor Society nominated, then selected, Wolfrom as recipient of the Nancy Williams Award for teaching. The award recognizes teachers who embody the values of the honor society: scholarship, leadership, service and character. The good news validated Wolfrom's hope that her students know how important her job is to her.

Scanlon said that when she is wondering how she is doing, it helps to remember those students who came before.

Mrs. Wolfrom with Rory Lynch. The cat eye glasses are a prop she uses to remind kids to look at the world through a different lens. “Humor plays a big role in my classroom environment and I don’t take myself too seriously here.” Courtesy photo by Ali Levy
"I have a history of making a difference with students and adults," she said. "That fact alone is really motivating when you are struggling."

Finding rhythm, creating calm

Wolfrom's approach to teaching mirrors her approach to life.

"I try to keep myself interested in lots of things," she said.

Cross-country skiing, yoga, photography, reading and writing are among her hobbies. Admittedly, the "me time" is often swallowed up by the day.

"It doesn't happen as much as I'd like it to," she said. "By the time the kids are in bed I just want to sit down."

Indeed, as a wife, mother and teacher, she sometimes feels spread thin.

"There are times I feel like I'm doing a lot but not doing it well," she said.

She's learned to listen to people who tell her that she's doing more, and doing it better, than she thinks.

As Haisley looks back on how he balanced his career with a family, he credits the time he set aside for himself.

"I would run for an hour a day," he said. "I made it a goal. I did it every day when I came home."

Scanlon learned to enlist the help of her kids as soon as possible.

"I started teaching when I had six children, ages 2 to 18, at home," she said. "That meant that we did a lot of work the night before to make sure we were prepared to run out the door ready to have a successful day. Everyone had to be really responsible."

Efficiency also made its way into her routine.

"I recall that for years I did a load of laundry every morning and every night and put the laundry away," she said. "I did not even use laundry baskets because I did not want clean laundry lying around."

Even with planning and effort, though, family demands could spill over into the workday.

"There are days when educators are a few minutes late in the morning because they just cannot get out the door," she said, noting that it's common for them to stay after school or work weekends to get everything done.

External factors, family matters and the occasional bad mood can be hard to hide.

"My students can see it on my face," Wolfrom said. "They'll say, 'Let's not bug her this morning.' I think it's important for teenagers to see that we're human, too. It's modeling for teenagers' life, so that they understand how people handle tough situations."

That modeling applies to students as well as to one's own kids, Scanlon said.

"I worried the whole time I was raising a big family that they did not get the best part of their mom because I was so exhausted at the end of the school day," she said.

The worry was for naught—her children turned out just fine. "I can honestly say that I have amazing adult children," she said. "I feel that they were not harmed by having parents who are committed at the workplace. We are committed employees and committed parents. We had to sacrifice to find balance, and that very sacrifice was a great example to our children."

In that way, educators are no different from other working parents: Challenges at home can impact the job, and a lack of focus at work often carries over as negative feelings back home. It's not the fact that bad days happen, however. It's how teachers and other working parents manage the issues.

"One thing I learned was that kids don't learn from what you say, they learn from what you do," Haisley said. "How I lived my life, how I interacted with them, how I interacted with my wife," that is what kids remember. "I knew that as a teacher I need to walk the talk, because kids believe the walk."

Letting go of some of the small things is a way Wolfrom manages her responsibilities. Doing the dishes immediately after dinner every night? Not always on the high-priority list. In its place might be quiet time, reflection or exercise.

"I have to let some of it go," she said. "It's easy to get down on myself. I need to practice compassion for myself, and forgiveness."

So how does she do it?

"Be OK with where you are," Wolfrom said. "We're not superwomen—and it's OK not to be."




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