It happened again last night. An adult student brought children to my graduate-level education course. No e-mail request or explanation preceded the arrival of the student with his two toddlers in tow. I looked up and there they were.
Cute? Yes. But did they belong in a graduate course? No. When I gave the parent a questioning look, all I got in response was an indifferent shrug. It was the last night of class, which meant the students would be doing course evaluations, so I said nothing about the two unexpected visitors in our midst.
That was not the first time that graduate students have brought children into my classroom, although these two were definitely the youngest. Usually the children are old enough to attend elementary school and have some understanding of how to behave in a classroom. But their behavior isn't the issue here; it's the conduct of their parents that is the problem.
My syllabus clearly states that students are not to bring visitors with them to class. On the first night of class, when I review the course requirements, I point out that the rule prohibiting visitors includes children. I have that statement on my syllabus because of past experiences with graduate students bringing children to class. I assumed that making that request aloud would be adequate. I didn't think that I would have to provide negative consequences in order to make students follow the rule. After all, the students in my graduate education courses are teachers themselves. They should understand why bringing children to an adult classroom is inappropriate.
But since some students don't seem to see the potential problems, perhaps I need to help them understand.
The first problem is where the child or children should sit. The child usually sits in a chair or desk that, in previous weeks, had been the chosen spot of a student who does not appreciate finding his or her spot unexpectedly usurped by a small person reading, drawing, or playing with some sort of electronic device. Although I am supposed to pretend that I don't see the child, his or her presence affects the classroom climate and my lesson plans. My classes often involve activities in which students have to move around to work in small groups. Is the child to be told to sit off to the side or in the back of the room, or does the child accompany the parent to the small group?
Another problem is trying to figure out how to handle controversial discussions and remarks that are perfectly acceptable for graduate students but may not be appropriate for an impressionable child. For instance, if the topic for the night includes issues related to bullying, sexual misconduct, abuse of power, or teacher dismissal, does everyone in class have to make sure everything they say would receive a G rating?
Graduate students may censor their own comments out of concern about what the child will tell others that he or she heard in our class. Additionally, students may make remarks in my classroom about the schools where they work. Their classmates know that the comments are to be treated with confidentiality, but a child may not know that. Some of my students may even work in the child's school, which provides an additional potential conflict of interest.
On nights when a parent has brought a child to a graduate class, the adult students are definitely aware of the child's presence. No matter how unintrusive the parent says the kid will be, Junior is a distraction. The other students watch the child. Some interact with the child instead of paying attention to the class activities. Some students whisper comments about the child to each other. The child is certainly not invisible to the rest of the class.
Bringing children to a graduate class isn't the same as bringing them to work so they can see what you do all day. The sole reason that parents bring children to class is because their child-care arrangements didn't work out. Although I appreciate the conscientiousness of students who are determined to not let the lack of a babysitter prevent them from coming to class, I also realize that other parents in my classroom have made backup plans to handle babysitting problems so that they can come to class unimpeded.
I wonder whether the parents who bring children to class think about how tedious the experience is going to be for the children. A graduate class usually meets for several hours. That's a long time for children to be on their best behavior in a room full of adults. The problem is not that they're talking too loudly in my classroom, it's that they do talk to their parent even when other adults in the room are speaking. Some have eaten snacks even though I have asked my students to refrain from eating during class.
I don't know what I would do if a child became unruly. If a little boy or girl started talking loudly or running around the room, how should I handle such behavior as well as the parent's lack of control of the child? It is just that sort of problem that I have tried to avoid by requesting that students not bring visitors to class.
The students who do bring children virtually never contact me ahead of time to let me know that a child will be accompanying them. That lack of communication is itself a problem, and it certainly affects my view of that student. It feels disrespectful to both the other students and to me when one student puts his or her personal concerns above those of other members of the shared learning experience.
In contrast I have become increasingly appreciative of the students who do contact me to explain that they won't be able to attend class because their babysitters are sick, out of town, or otherwise unavailable. Emergencies do occur, and those students have handled the situation in a professional manner. They realize that children don't belong in a graduate classroom and don't want to impose their kids on their classmates.
Perhaps I should just be glad that only once has a graduate student brought in a visitor who wasn't a child. Years ago when I was a new untenured faculty member, a student brought her mother to class. The mother's determination to share her unsolicited comments was far worse than having two toddlers in the room.