Through eight years of elementary school, the first whiff of fall would see me curled up on the couch, pangs of back-to-school anxiety piercing my belly. Would the teacher be a raging tyrant again this year? Would it be my turn to get bullied by my classmates? Where would I fall in the social stratosphere this time around? This paralysis marked every September for me as a child, and my parents had to coax me off the couch and down the street to the dilapidated Catholic school.
Without a doubt, those September mornings would have been doubly painful if Mom or Dad had waltzed into school with me – the way it is for many kids whose parents are their teachers or, possibly worse, their principals.
In many smaller communities in Canada, there is often no escaping it: The only English teacher might be your mom, or that mandatory phys-ed class might be taught by your dad.
It’s an awkward scenario for the already awkward years of elementary and high school. Students whose own parents teach them are a huge curiosity for their classmates: What’s it like to drive in with your mom the principal every morning, or get detention from your dad, or get an essay marked up in red by a parent? How does it feel to overhear your friends dissing your mother or father at recess? Or witness all of your other teachers drinking at your house on the weekend? What do you even call these people in class? Mrs. Mom?
With back-to-school upon some of us, The Globe and Mail spoke with children of parent-teachers across Canada about the highs and the lows of this unconventional educational arrangement.
Lauren Edwards, a 28-year-old Halifax physiotherapist whose father was the vice-principal in charge of “discipline” at her junior high school, Queen Charlotte Intermediate, in Charlottetown
“It’s hard to fit in anyway in junior high, but then I had this target on my back. My nickname was ‘Mr. Edwards’s daughter.’ I was definitely unpopular. It would be nice if I could use this as an excuse.
“We got our house egged a lot and we got a lot of prank phone calls. That was interesting, growing up. One time we had 100 ripe bananas left on our doorstep. There was no note to say what they signified, but it was certainly interesting.
“Kids would say, ‘I hate your dad so much. He’s such a jerk. He suspended me.’ I’d be like, ‘Sometimes I hate him too, he grounded me.’ I tried to empathize but it was a weird scenario.
“I saw the teachers at the house all the time. We would have staff parties or someone would come over for a beer. It was really uncomfortable, as a teenager, seeing your teachers having beer. I felt that this was my time where I didn’t have to be at school, and here are my teachers in my living room. Later, kids would ask questions: ‘Does so-and-so have a girlfriend?’ ‘Did they bring their wife over?’ ‘Were they drinking alcohol?’ I would try to deflect the questions because I knew my dad would really not like that.
“When he was on lunch duty in the cafeteria, though, he would get free food. Everyone would see him bring his fries over to me. In junior high, that was a pretty big perk.”
Shauna May, a 33-year-old Calgary librarian whose mother was her French teacher from Grades 10 to 12 at Carlton Comprehensive High School in Prince Albert, Sask.
“I was a good student, but sometimes when I’d get in trouble, my friends liked to see it. Once I was talking out of turn and my mom told me to ‘be quiet!’ in French. A friend looked at me and laughed, ‘Ha! You got in trouble!’ I replied, ‘Believe me, that’s not trouble.’
“For years, other teachers would come over to the house for barbecues. It was in my best interest to act well so I’d have all these other people I could go to at school if I needed extra help.
“My brother, my mom and I would all get in the car together at 8 a.m. and go to school in the dark. And then you’d come home in the dark together because mom always had to stay after school to mark papers. We all got along really well but I remembered begging, ‘Can we just go home now?’ ”
Marianne Davidson, a 48-year-old high-school teacher of history and law in Prince Albert, Sask., whose father taught her Grade 10 computer science at Weyburn Comprehensive School in Weyburn, Sask.
“There were a bunch of kids in my computer science class who didn’t know he was my dad. The weeks went on. I couldn’t call him ‘Mr. Janoski’ – that just sounded weird. And I couldn’t call him ‘Dad’ because that was a little too informal. Whenever I had a question, I’d just put my hand up and wait until he came over to answer. One time I was working with a partner and the word ‘dad’ just came out. Her eyes got so big and her jaw dropped. She said, ‘Why did you call him Dad?’ She was so embarrassed for me. I just looked at her and shrugged, ‘Cuz he is my dad.’ Then the teasing started from my classmates: ‘I bet you’re going to get good grades.’ ‘Could you get the test for us so we can have the answers?’
“One time I was walking behind some fellow students and they didn’t see me. They were trashing my dad pretty good. I wish I’d had a little more self-confidence at the age of 15 to say, ‘Hey! I’m his daughter, shut up!’ I felt horrible. Everyone says things about teachers, but he was my dad first. It was hard when things like that happened.
“What people don’t realize is that when your father is your teacher, you go home with your teacher. If I wasn’t doing well in his class or in any other class, the teachers would talk to him. He’d know my report card before I would, which irritated me to no end.
“He was the only computer science teacher so I had to have him. It was very awkward for us both. How do you discipline your daughter at school? How do you motivate her when there’s all this emotional baggage? My dad was very aware of trying to keep propriety. At school dances he would have to chaperone, but he would make sure he was out in the hallway so he didn’t seem to be hovering over me, being the dad. Now, as an adult, I think he did a pretty good job.”
Andri Shchudlo, a 27-year-old Toronto articling student whose mother was his Grade 11 and 12 English teacher at Glenlawn Collegiate Institute in Winnipeg
“I thought it would be a little awkward and my friends thought it would be horribly awkward, but from the get-go it was a lot of fun. My mom was well-respected and extremely well-liked by my fellow students. She really liked kids and seemed to understand teenagers.
“People thought our dynamic was funny. I did start calling her ‘Mom’ at some point and went into her class asking her for lunch money. We both had fun with it. It actually enhanced my social standing. I’m sure that’s very different from lots of people who have their parents as teachers.
“Initially she was very concerned about any semblance of impropriety so she refused to talk about school with me outside of the classroom. She didn’t want to give the appearance to anyone that she was making things easier for her son than for anyone else. If I had issues, I still had to go to class to ask her about it.
“I got a few detentions with her for coming late to class. She was a stickler for that kind of thing. I would be sitting in detention with her at the end of the day with a couple other students who had shown up late. I was a little irritated, but my strongest feeling was that the situation was really funny: My mom is administering my detention at school. And then I’d go home with her afterwards. We lived an hour north of the city so it would be this long car ride. We’d just needle each other about it.”
Sian Bumsted, a 33-year-old Toronto analyst whose mother was her Grade 12 history teacher at St. John’s Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg
“It was a new school for me so it was a bit nerve-racking. Not everyone knew I was her daughter. Somebody saw me hugging her in the hallway and said, ‘That’s weird.’ I was like, ‘No, no, it’s my mom. Totally normal. We’re allowed to do this.’ I would call her ‘Mom’ in the hallway, but in the classroom I never knew what to call her. For a whole year I didn’t address her as anything. It was a ‘hey you’ situation.
“It was a parent-teacher conference every day. If I did something in class or did badly on a test, the other teachers would tell my mom. You’re under a microscope all the time.
“She knew what all the deadlines and projects were. There was no, ‘That’s not due till next week,’ or ‘Major research project? What are you talking about?’ She knew all of it.”
“She even kicked me out once. It was either for chewing gum or for talking in class. She was showing everybody else in the class that I was not treated any differently than they were.”
“There was a sense from her of ‘Don’t make me look bad.’ It probably forced me to be a better kid than I would have otherwise been. I shudder to think what high school would have been like had I been left to my own devices.”
Alex Rushdy, a 24-year-old Toronto video game designer whose mother was his principal at École Dickinsfield School in Fort McMurray, Alta.; his father was associate superintendent for the local school board
“I was a little shit so I got in trouble a lot. With my own parents. I saw the classroom less as a platform for learning and more as a platform for my specific brand of comedy. I would do whatever I could to entertain my classmates.
“When they were organizing who’d be in which class, my mom tried to keep me and my closest friends in separate classes because we were too rambunctious. For us it was always, how many different ways can we secretly draw a penis on the whiteboard? She tried to split me up from my friends, but I would just make new friends in the other class.
“In Grade 8 we were in an assembly in the gymnasium. I was sitting on the floor with a bunch of my friends. There was a presentation being given, but I was more interested in cracking jokes. My mother pulled me aside and told me to sit at the side away from other people. [This had been a particularly bad week where I had been talking back to my teachers. I’d been sent down to see my mom several times already that week.] I was sitting there and I decided it would be funny if I just started doing push-ups. She walked over to me – I could tell that she was pissed off – and said to me, ‘Go home. You’re suspended.’ My sister, who was a really popular kid at school, said that I was an embarrassment to my mother.
“Most of my friends [even the ones I was acting like an idiot with] were all pretty respectful and they all really liked my mother. They were still willing to hang out, play video games in my basement and sleep over even though the principal and the superintendent – the biggest authority figures – were just upstairs. I do remember one or two particularly bad kids who wouldn’t come over because they were getting into drugs at that age and they were too freaked out.
“I remember my gym teacher using my dad as a threat to straighten me out in class: ‘I can just call up your dad – direct line – and let him know how you’re acting.’ My parents knew all my teachers and they knew first-hand what I was capable of. Parent-teacher night was basically my teacher and my two parents glaring at me.”
Brian Bukowski, a 64-year-old consultant whose mother was his core teacher from Grades 1 to 6 at St. Dominic Savio and from Grades 7 to 9 at St. Michael School in Weyburn, Sask.
“I was seen as either teacher’s pet or teacher’s snitch. Bullying was an everyday occurrence. Kids would make fun of her in front of me. I had learned not to say anything. They would say stuff just to get me going. Then she’d pull in the kids who were giving me a hard time. She fanned the flames.
“I was always the first kid at school and the last kid to leave because I came and went with her. When I was sick, I’d still go to school because there was nobody at home to take care of me. I lived with her for those nine years almost 24 hours a day. It was hard to do anything bad.
“She was very strict. She was a 5-foot-2 woman dealing with 6-foot kids in Grade 9. Back then the strap was in. I got the strap from her in the school. It’s something you don’t forget.
“Her teaching degree was only good for elementary school. Graduating from Grade 6, I thought I wouldn’t have to go to school with her any more. On the last day of school, she proudly announced to everybody that the school board was going to let her teach in junior high. She moved with me and taught me in Grades 7 through 9. It was devastating. I do remember crying that day. The last day of Grade 9 was a day of celebration because I knew she couldn’t follow. But the last day for her was really a rough day.
“She was a great teacher. She started back in 1933 with the true one-room schoolhouse on the prairie. She taught most of my dad’s brothers and sisters and thousands of kids in Weyburn. She was proud that she could be my teacher. There’s a saying that we have around the house: ‘It was fun for the mum but not for the son.’ ”
Interviews have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.