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Classroom Management, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Jul 6, 2022

When your co-worker’s child is assigned to your classroom: How to navigate teaching staff members’ kids

By Catherine Eisel-Elder

When your co-worker’s child is assigned to your classroom: How to navigate teaching staff members’ kids

By Catherine Eisel-Elder

You get your roster for next year, and scan for familiar names…and then you see it.

A coworker’s kid’s name.

Maybe you’re excited by this news — you love their kid! You love them! This is going to be great!

Or maybe your stomach drops instantly. You know that you haven’t had the best relationship with them, and now you’re going to be responsible for their most precious gift — their child.

Maybe the situation’s ever more most unsettling — it’s your principal’s kid. Or the instructional coach’s. Or anyone in a position of relative power over you. What now?!

I’m a teacher’s kid. I grew up putting up bulletin boards and rolling my mom’s chair in races down the hall during pre- and post-planning. I even had my mom for two classes in high school (she was the only one certified to teach the courses I needed to take — and yes, she was harder on me than anyone else!).

I’ve been teaching for 10 years, and I’m now a parent of a kid at the school where I work, AND I’m a teacher’s kid. So when I say I’ve experienced this from all sides, I mean it.

If you haven’t yet had the experience of teaching the child of a fellow staff member, give it time. Statistically speaking, at least half of the teacher workforce are also parents, and when you consider other caregivers — extended family, foster families, etc. — the numbers go up. Education is a caregiving field, so it stands to reason that many educators are caregivers outside of school, too.

While I don’t think I’ve mastered this awkward situation fully, I have had a lot of practice — for all but two of my ten years of teaching, I’ve had staff and/or Board members’ kids in my class. And, as previously stated, I grew up as a teacher’s kid. I reached out to as many of my coworkers as I could to get feedback on this situation, and several themes arose. Of course, all of these pieces of wisdom are from my own experience, but I think there are lots of applicable lessons that you can apply to your context, too.

Assess your current relationship with the other adult

First, you need to honestly assess the current relationship you have with the other adult, and the student in question. Are you just familiar with one another’s faces in the hallway? Are you work besties? Are you somewhere in between? Think about how this relationship currently plays out.

Do you text the other person funny memes? Do you just occasionally pass one another in the halls and give a polite nod or greeting? Are you friends on social media? Do you socialize outside of school? Do your own kids or family have relationships with their kids?

This clear assessment of where your relationship currently stands doesn’t have to be formal, but it will help inform your mindset towards this relationship for as long as it exists.

This step is especially important if you’re close with the other adult. I have taught a couple of my closest friends’ kids, and having a clear understanding of what the relationship was before teaching their kids helped me keep things in perspective, as well as helped me recognize when that relationship dynamic was shifting throughout the school year.

Discuss boundaries

The next, and most important, consideration is boundaries. This is probably also the most difficult hurdle, and the thing that will require the most attention, care, and renegotiation.

Whether you’re the caregiver or the teacher, you need to examine yourself. What are your boundaries? What are you comfortable or uncomfortable with?

Some caregivers do not want to be contacted about their kid during the day, no matter what. Some want constant updates. Some want all school correspondence to go through a partner or a different adult, to maintain work-home boundaries. You need to know where you’re comfortable, and then you need to initiate a conversation with the other adult to discuss and find a middle ground.

When in doubt, follow the caregiver’s lead. In my experience, it’s never worth damaging the relationship over doing things “my way” as the teacher — and ultimately, the caregiver is the one who has the right to make decisions about their child. Acknowledge that this relationship may require deviations from your normal family-teacher practices, and that’s okay.

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Acknowledge the awkwardness

As you’re talking together, I’ve found it’s helpful to name that this is awkward. Whether you’re the best of friends or didn’t know one another before this moment, acknowledging that this relationship is different from most other experiences you’ve had goes a long way. Name the awkwardness, and be transparent with where your difficulties with the relationship may lie.

Again, this is where knowing yourself is INCREDIBLY important.

If you know that you are terrible at taking pictures and sharing them (guilty here!), name it.

If you struggle with maintaining your own work/life balance (guilty again), share that.

Ask for grace and extend it early, and recognize that there are likely to be “sandpaper” moments throughout this experience. Be realistic in your expectations and goals for yourself and the relationship.

Be prepared to have the difficult conversations again

Expect to revisit this conversation often. Both this past school year and the year before, I taught the kids of some of my closest friends. And there were several moments when we had to have difficult conversations because their kid had opportunities for growth in academics or behavior, or because I crossed boundaries unintentionally and had to apologize and course-correct.

I’ve learned to be proactive. When I feel in my gut that the relationship is off-balance, I’ve learned to name that with the other person, and take time to repair any harm caused. Be especially aware of power dynamics — teachers do have a position of power in students’ lives, but your student’s caregiver may have a position of power over you (or you over them), whether by their role at the school, their gender, race, or other societal privileges, or just personality dynamics. Take careful stock of the complexities of the relationship, and be ready to re-evaluate with one another frequently.

Here are some topics you may want to discuss in advance, and that you may also need to revisit from time to time:

  • General communication preferences (think about your classroom structures — do you use an app or program to manage communication? Do you have time boundaries when you do/don’t want to receive communications?)
  • Arrival/dismissal logistics (what about if changes occur?)
  • Is it okay to share positive moments in passing, or via less formal communication (like text)?
  • How do you prefer to communicate less-than-positive information? Does a partner, co-parent, or other caregiver need to be the point person? Does the information need to be shared in email first, so you have written documentation (which your district may require or encourage)? Does a formal conference need to be set up, or are both parties comfortable with a more casual approach?
  • What should the child do when they see the caregiver during contract hours? Particularly with young kids, be sure to have conversations about leaving the line/class to give hugs, ask questions, get snack/water/etc.

I outlined sharing positive moments in passing, and sharing other issues (behavioral, grades, etc.) in a more formal way. This is one of the biggest pieces of feedback I got from all of my coworkers whose kids I have taught.

Most of the time, it’s a really nice moment to hear something funny or insightful your kid did during the day. It doesn’t disrupt the workflow of your own day as an educator to hear something positive. But it absolutely stinks, and can really throw off the rest of your day, to have someone give negative (or even growth-related) feedback in passing.

Of course, students are going to do this — but it’s okay to set boundaries with them, too! For example, lots of kids LOVE to tell caregivers that their kids got in trouble — and it is absolutely okay to tell students to respect that the adult is working, and that the adults will deal with any behavior issues — just like you do when students tattle on one another in class.

One of the most painful lessons I learned was in using a caregiver’s presence in the building as a classroom management “tool.” I had this done to me as a kid, and I hated it — and then I turned around and perpetuated it myself.

Don’t do it. Unless you would call and interrupt a caregiver at their workplace elsewhere, don’t do it just because they’re on your campus. Caregivers are not threats, and leveraging that relationship is very rarely going to have the intended effect.

This past year, as I taught second grade, there were moments when the student asked me to contact their parent during the day, and I was very glad I had had conversations with the parent beforehand to help me determine when to agree to this, and when to deflect to another strategy.

One of my students has anxiety, so knowing that I had texted his mom allowed his brain to calm down and begin processing learning again. And telling his mom clearly in the text that her child had asked me to share something, and that nothing needed to be done on her end, helped her know that she could glance at the text, know that her kid was being cared for, and move on with her day.

These points of contact were jumping-off points for continued conversation about our boundaries as teachers, caregivers, and colleagues — and the lines moved over time, as we discovered by trial and error what worked and didn’t for us.

Always consider the child in question

With my kid, we had a lot of explicit conversations before school began about what it would be like to be at the same school. We practiced seeing one another in the hallway and waving, and talked about what he should do if he’s having a problem during the day. I showed him where I had extra water bottles and snacks in my classroom, so that if I had forgotten to pack something at home, he could come in quietly and get what he needed without interrupting my teaching.

When I was in my mom’s class in high school, we had conversations about whether I should call her “Mom,” or try using her “teacher name” (we landed on “Mom”— it was just too weird otherwise). My friends had spent the night at my house for years, so knew my mom as my mom first, but for the years that I had her, we agreed to try to limit some of the hosting of events at our house to give my mom some separation from her students and my friends some space from their teacher.

The kids are part of this relationship, too — and as a teacher, it’s important to respect that child’s privacy. Think about when you were a kid. If someone had reported to your caregivers every single interaction you had with peers — every comment made to or by you, every friend spat, every movement out of bounds — you would feel stifled.

So much of childhood is about stretching one’s wings, of learning who you are as a person, and it’s hard to do that without the freedom to make some mistakes and missteps, to learn who you are separate from your family and trusted adults. I tend to take a counselor’s approach — unless someone is in danger of being harmed or harming someone else, I tend not to share.

Just as I try to remember to share a positive moment or interaction with all caregivers, I do try to make a point of sharing small positive moments with colleagues. A picture of a sweet moment with a friend, or a fun learning experience, or a quick story of something the student has worked hard on — getting these sorts of tender updates helps build a rapport between two adults who share a love and sense of responsibility for a child. But I generally ask the child first if it’s okay to share with their grownups, and respect their answer.

Overall, teaching a colleague’s kid, or having a colleague teach your kid, can be a great experience. It’s foolish to try to act like it’s the same as any other caregiver-teacher relationship, and the years when I’ve tried to act like it is are the years when I’ve had the most disastrous outcomes.

But, there can be so many nice moments. For example, I got to walk my kid to his classroom on his first day of in-person school ever this year, which with the pandemic protocols, very few caregivers got to do. I will never take that for granted. I was able to have a great partnership with my kid’s teachers, because we spoke the same “language” of education, and I could give insights on how my kid learns outside the classroom more effectively.

I was able to build deeper relationships with students whose families I knew, because I could honor and respect their cultural touchpoints more readily. And ultimately, I have become a better teacher and parent for living both sides of the coin.

Key takeaways:

  • Have honest conversations about boundaries; follow the caregiver’s lead
  • Respect the student’s privacy
  • Share positives readily; be thoughtful in sharing areas of growth
  • Respect boundaries, and be prepared to renegotiate as you go

Catherine Eisel-Elder

Catherine Eisel-Elder grew up in central Georgia and currently works in the metro Atlanta area. She has worked with kids in different capacities since she was 14 years old. Her passions in teaching are learning more about making classrooms and...
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