“My daddy sent this to me when he went away,” said this shy little girl presenting her Show and Tell treasure in front of my kindergarten classroom. She stroked the bear with its camouflage pants and proudly demonstrated its singing abilities.
But as her classmates applauded, I bit my lip and blinked away tears. I knew what that bear meant to that little girl. I knew she was sharing a true treasure.
I knew her father had sent her that bear from Iraq before he was killed.
Before the school year began, I read through my new students’ files, making mental notes of preschool backgrounds, food allergies, and any additional information parents include to help teachers understand their children. My breath caught when I read this girl’s file. Her father was killed in Iraq the same year she was born. She never met him. She’s never had a father. She is a military brat who sacrificed long before she knew what the word sacrifice meant.
As a military spouse, my heart broke for this child as I thought about how my own military brats would cope with the loss of their father. However, as a teacher, I felt I was at a complete loss, wholly unprepared to nurture this child, or any child, who walked into my classroom with such an exceptional family history.
I earned my teaching degree in a military town. I completed my student teaching in a military town. And I’ve been teaching for the last two years in a military town. Yet I’ve never taken a class on the psychology of the military child or sat in on a teacher in-service lecture on how to attend to the unique needs of a military child. Any instincts I’ve had with military brat students have been maternal, based solely on my experiences with my own children and the children of my military friends.
But what about those teachers who aren’t military spouses, who don't have their own military brats at home, who don't have any prior experiences with military families? Considering the amount of time teachers spend with our children, I’d say it’s pretty important for educators who work in a location with a large military population to learn about those unique needs of military brats.
Members of the military community often talk about the military-civilian divide, that invisible line that separates these two disparate worlds and makes us feel that most people don’t understand us. But we need to find a way to cross that line, if not for our own sake, then for the sake of our military brats.
So how can we do this? How can we help educators and caregivers understand our children?
Communication! If your spouse is preparing to deploy, email your child’s teacher or ask to schedule a conference. Let her know to keep an eye out for unusual behavior. Share any coping strategies you know your child responds to. Compile a list of books written for both adults and children about military life. Print out articles and direct teachers to online resources like Military OneSource, Sesame Street for Military Families, and Military Kids Connect. At the very least, encourage open communication and make yourself available to answer questions.
As a mother of military brats, I try to follow my own advice by emailing my childrens' teachers if my husband will be gone longer than two weeks. As a teacher, I appreciate when parents give me a heads up about special circumstances or changes their children are experiencing at home. Even if I see no behavior changes in my classroom, at least I can give out a few extra hugs.
I often think about that Show and Tell day and the special little girl who will never know her father. I’m thankful that her mother opened the lines of communication with me by including that information in her daughter’s file. Otherwise I might never have known how important it was to give out a few extra hugs that day.
What do you do to help your child’s teachers and caregivers understand the military lifestyle?