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Parent blog: Learning teachers' pet peeves

Boulder mom and psychologist Suzita Cochran says children can learn how to read their teachers’ “pet peeves” in order to make the most of class time.

At my kids’ elementary school, we aren’t told who their teacher will be until the day before school begins. One year, right after teacher assignments were posted, my son Daniel came to me with a look of concern

“Mama, I got the strict teacher. Everyone says she’s really hard and no fun at all. What am I going to do?”

I understood what Daniel was saying. I too had heard these things about this teacher. However, I’d also heard that she pushed kids to learn a lot, setting a high academic bar. At times my Daniel had been known to shoot for mediocrity in class, especially when no one was looking. And I knew that when children work hard at school, they usually feel proud of themselves in the end.

I was secretly pleased that Daniel had been given this teacher.

However, I also needed to find a way to talk with my anxious son about how to work with a strict teacher. He needed help to start out on the right foot in her class. This was going to be a delicate conversation, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to pull it off. I didn’t want to focus too much on this teacher’s strong personality traits, accentuating them even more in Daniel’s mind. Yet I also didn’t want to minimize Daniel’s worries.

My breakthrough idea

At dinner that night, I had an a-ha moment. It went like this. My daughter Annie did the mealtime thing that drives me crazy. I’d just returned to the table from refilling my water glass. Right after I sat back down, Annie requested more water. (She wasn’t yet able to reach the tap on her own). This is one of my major pet peeves. It’s fine to ask me to refill your water when I am already up filling a glass, but that’s your window of opportunity, not right after I’m seated again.

“What’s a pet peeve?” Annie asked. Thus began a lively dinner conversation. I explained the concept of a pet peeve and soon my kids were off and running with it.

“I bet mama has way more pet peeves than daddy,” Daniel said. Ouch, but also very true. Our oldest son Stephen asked if we could name our next pet “Peeve.” We could then say to people, “This is my pet, Peeve.”

From here, the kids started naming their own pet peeves:

“When I’m on my bike passing someone and I say, ‘I’m on your left’ and they move to the left.”

“People who bring a huge lunch to school, eat a few bites and throw the rest away. They could at least give the rest to me.”

Then the kids began listing my husband’s and my pet peeves. They knew so many more of them than we expected. My first response was a mix of shame and embarrassment. I hadn’t realized my annoyances were so visible. Was this bad parenting? But in a rare parenting moment, I was able to shift my thinking back to the big picture.

I reminded the kids that it took skill to notice pet peeves in other people. When you know someone’s pet peeves, you can stay away from these areas and get along with the person better. We discussed how knowing the kinds of things that bother a person can tell you something about that person.

I asked our kids to notice their new teachers’ pet peeves over the first few days of school. Daniel, who at that time wanted to be a detective when he grew up, loved this idea. It seemed to organize him. He now had a plan of action, rather than simply being scared and nervous about his new teacher.

Create a list of teacher pet peeves

Toward the end of my kids’ first week of school, we had begun a list of teacher pet peeves. We realized some teachers were clearer about their pet peeves than others. “I get angry when someone gets up to sharpen their pencil when I am talking to all of you,” Daniel’s teacher informed the class the first day.

Some of Stephen’s teacher’s pet peeves were, “Never turn assignments in on unlined paper” and “Don’t say blowing up a balloon when you mean inflating it!”

Other teacher’s peeves were harder to figure out. They would take some careful observation over time.

Getting used to a new teacher

During the next few weeks, I listened to Daniel talk about his school days but didn’t ask him many specific questions about his teacher. I wanted to give him space to get to know her in his own way. This took patience on my part, not my strong suit.

About a month into the school year, I asked Daniel how things were going with his “strict” teacher. After thinking for a second, he said, “Well, she is strict. The kids were right about that. But I don’t really mind it. She tells us exactly what the rules are – so we know when we’re breaking one. It’s not a surprise or anything. And she treats us like big kids. We work hard, but I like it.”

I must say I was relieved. You never know how these things will go. I figured our conversation had come to a close when Daniel added as he walked off, “Mama, I think I was able to figure her out quickly because she’s actually a lot like you.”

I’ll admit my first response to this was, So people see me as strict and uptight with a lot of pet peeves?! But in time I was able to shift away from myself and simply be grateful that Daniel liked his teacher – strictness, high standards and all.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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