The best things teachers can do to support kids of single parentsJessica Ashley
He was four and felt good about returning to the classroom where he’d have one more year to practice tying his sneakers on the shoe board, spend lots of time at his favorite math center, sing songs about loving all kinds of people, put the Wheel of Choices to use when there were tantrums and grabbing blocks and tears, and would somehow get through the nap hour every day. He loved that classroom, had oodles of friends and was led by an amazing teacher who lapsed into cheery, accompanied sign language, even while talking to parents. Big things happened in kindergarten, he’d heard, and he was still very happy to be back in room 008.
The teacher pulled me aside that first week of his second year.
I’d been talking to my group of mom friends, women I’d developed a relationship with the previous year and had spent time with over play dates and Friday night dinners where the juice boxes and wine flowed freely. We were a tight-knit circle of working mothers who helped each other out when babysitters cancelled, traffic was horrific and when we really just needed a few child-free hours to go to Target or dinner. Those moms had become a social and support network for me during the critical months of my early divorce. With one conversation with the pre-K teacher, the circle was about to expand by one mom.
“I want you to meet another Jessica,” she said. “She’s a single mom, too. I think you two should know each other. And I think your boys will get along well.”
That one insight, and the sensitivity to bring two women going through similar stuff, both with boys, was one of the kindest, most supportive school moments I’ve had as a parent. The teacher had so many gifts to offer my son, and in this interaction, she was also tending to me, maybe more than she knew.
At the restaurant where we like to meet, four or so years since that introduction, the staff sometimes puts “The Jessicas” on our bill. And although our sons now go to different schools and only see each other every few months, there is a shorthand there that they both can read.
The first time we went to their house for pizza and a playdate, this single mama’s son greeted mine at the door.
“So,” he said, trying to act casual, “I hear your parents are divorced.”
“Yup,” my boy answered, no frills attached.
“Cool,” the other kid responded. “Want to see the tons of Legos in my room?”
And then they were off. And we were left, the Jessicas, standing silent and teary and a momentous meeting at the front door that neither of our sons saw as anything at all outside the norm.
The preschool teacher who facilitated that meeting also listened attentively and compassionately when I let her know we were moving, that my son was struggling with visitation transitions, and other unfoldings of our home life that I could have kept private. Sometimes she offered information on child development, other times she offered to incorporate those issues in anonymous ways in class lessons, and she often reassured me that, despite the turmoil of the divorce, where my son was showing signs of thriving.
She was, in my experience, the ideal teacher for a single parent. In the years since, she and other teachers have offered other kinds of support that have made the classroom a kinder place for both my student and me to be. Here are a couple of shining single-parent supportive moments:
1. Adding “two-home” books to the unit on families. When the preschoolers were studying how families work as a part of their social studies curriculum, we donated a copy of My Two Homes to the classroom. When kids had questions about how it worked for my son, he had the opportunity to answer and the other students then felt free to bring it up. It normalized a situation and now his friends think it’s no biggie that his mom and dad don’t live together, that the Not Boyfriend is often around and that Santa has two stops to make for him.
2. Agreeing to separate parent-teacher conferences. No matter whether I’m in court or on civil terms with my son’s father or not, scheduling our own times to meet with the teacher has made a big difference in how much can happen in that ten minutes twice a year. I’ve been grateful when teachers are willing to add more time to their packed-full schedules to accommodate our situation and our very different work hours. Most importantly, it allows me to focus in solely on my son, to get through questions I have and to really hear the teacher’s assessment.
3. Alerting me if we’ve both signed up to volunteer for the same event. I’ve let teachers know that I am happy to chaperone on field trips, set up for assemblies and get as room-parenty as they like, but it’s not best for me to hold small hands through the zoo if my ex-husband is also present. I don’t want to put my boy in an awkward which-parent-do-I-stand-with? situation so I am happy to bow out until another field trip, International Fest or field day. I simply say, “Can you please let me know if his dad raises his hand to volunteer and I will happily sign up for another time?” and they have most often helped.
In a perfect co-parenting arrangement, this wouldn’t be an item on the list. None of these items may need to be on your list at all, in fact. If you have that, more power (and co-chaperoning to the planetarium and pumpkin farm) to you.
For us, for the last five years, I’m grateful for the gestures teachers have made to support a single mom’s kid being in and being comfortable in their classrooms. It’s not necessary, not required, and has made a big difference with a book, an introduction or ten more minutes of time.
How have teachers supported your unique family situation? How would you like teachers to support your single-parented family?
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