Dinner With Teachers Enlightening


Ever since debuting "Dinner with the Smileys" in January, I've been providing obscure, teasing hints about upcoming guests for followers on Facebook. Some of the more popular clues have been:

"One of our upcoming guests wears gold."

"An April guest shared a stage with C3PO (and, no, it's not R2D2)."

"In June we will have 'Dinner with the Smileys' with a 37-foot tall monster and his friends." 

"Soon we will eat with Savages and wild animals."

"One of our upcoming guests is not human."

"One of our upcoming guests designed logos for Comedy Central and Nickelodeon."

Readers get excited when they figure out the answers to these clues. Readers also get excited when they know what those answers mean: "The Smileys are going to have dinner with _________." But the truth is, some of the most anticipated dinners don't work well in a riddle. That's because some of the most anticipated dinners are the ones that will be shared with someone who isn't a celebrity: Namely, the boys' teachers. 

In January, for instance, I could have used this hint, "One of our upcoming guests can convince Lindell to put on his snow boots by himself." But it wouldn't have been super exciting -- not, at least, in the same way that hinting about a monster is exciting. Yet the night Lindell's preschool teacher came to dinner, you would have thought we were hosting the president. Or, maybe even Elvis. Lindell was positively out of his mind with anticipation. 

The older boys, who don't jump up and down on the couch, as Lindell did, or slap their cheeks because their so excited, are nonetheless visibly happy about their own teacher's turn at "Dinner with the Smileys." And when you think about it, why shouldn't they be? Once kids are school-age, they spend a greater percentage of their week with their teacher than they do at home. The school teacher is an enormous part of their life.

I remember knowing every sweater my second-grade teacher owned. I knew the smell of her perfume. And sitting in her classroom was like a second home. I was lucky, however, because my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Katabian, was also my mom's friend. We went to the beach together, and my brothers were friends with her sons. Many years later, Mrs. Katabian came to my wedding and my first book signing.

Today, this sort of relationship seems unacceptable, and even discouraged, between a teacher and a student's family. Indeed, the relationship stops just short of a 10-minute parent-teacher conference twice a year and perhaps phone messages delivered through the school secretary. The culture surrounding families and teachers has changed so much, when friends heard that I was inviting the boys' teachers, nearly all of them said, "You can do that?"

I wasn't sure. But I was determined to try.

As it turned out, the dinners we have with teachers are extraordinarily dynamic and enriching. Here is someone who knows a whole other side to my child that I never see. Here is someone who has special insight into his development. And here is someone who probably shares many of my frustrations -- like this one's constant throat-clearing and that one's habit of tapping a pencil. 

In many ways, the teacher and I are a team. We are both invested in the best interest of my child. How could I not invite such an influential person in my son's life to dinner?

Besides, the teachers have much to gain from their visit, as well. They get a better sense of their student's home life and influences from siblings and parents. They can finally meet the dog their student writes about all the time. They can place the child in the context of his world. 

Perhaps my expressing this will cause some educators to bang their head against a wall. "Now everyone is going to invite us to dinner," they'll say. Or, to be more precise, maybe local teachers will think, "Uh-oh, if I get a Smiley boy next year, it looks like I'll have to go to dinner." 

The teacher-student-family relationship isn't for everyone. Not every teacher wants, or has the time, to visit with families. But it seems to me that even a a small effort toward some kind of relationship outside of the twice yearly, 10-minute conferences could be beneficial on both sides. 

My boys will never forget having their teachers come to dinner. It has been a highlight to this entire project. And you might never have guessed that from a riddle or clue. The experience has been so fulfilling, a reader and friend decided to invite her son's kindergarten teacher to dinner this week. She will post about her experience at http://www.Facebook.com/DinnerWithTheSmileys

This month, reach out to someone influential in your child's life -- a teacher, a coach, a babysitter -- and invite them to dinner. Then tell us about it on the Dinner with the Smileys page.

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Navy wife Sarah Smiley is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife (2005) and I'm Just Saying (2008). She has been featured in the New York Times and Newsweek, and on Nightline, The Early Show, CNN, Fox News and other local and national news outlets. Her liferights were optioned by Kelsey Grammer's company, Grammnet, and Paramount Television to be made into a half-hour sitcom. Visit www.SarahSmiley.com for more details. To contact Sarah, you can also visit her Facebook page.

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