Supporting students from military families

As a teacher, parent, and veteran working in a densely military-populated state (North Carolina), I’m concerned about supporting students and their military families. There are currently over one million children of active service members nationwide–meaning teachers must work to help these students adjust to a “new normal” while helping other kids understand the sacrifices of the past and what they mean for the present.

I’m blessed to know countless thoughtful educators who go out of their way to support our troops and their families. For that, I am a #ThankfulTeacher indeed. These teachers have discovered wonderful, simple, and inexpensive ways to support troops: Valentines for Veterans, AdoptaPlatoon, A Million Thanks, and simply making sure the battle buddies of deployed parents have a support system. But sometimes, there needs to be a little bit more.

When considering deployed troops and their children, it’s critical to consider each case on an individual basis. Although some kids may be “used to it”–and proclaim so loud and proud–it can be tough for many students to talk about service.

Much like language learners, there may actually be a silent period for students when a parent or family member is deployed–a time in which kids are processing and learning how to make sense of the many changes in their lives. These changes include physical space and proximity, emotional access, and evolving roles and responsibilities among family members. Recent studies show that long periods of parental absence due to deployment significantly challenge children’s social and emotional well-being.

For these students, some thoughts will be easier to express than others. Some thoughts will need to be kept private, especially when others don’t quite “get it”– because laying yourself bare can devalue your experience, and that’s not what we want to do to our students. Some kids will want to keep information on the down low, equating quiet with “safety”. Other students will actively talk to adults because they need tangible, audible support. Many still will fall somewhere between these options, while even more will waver among these feelings and needs on a daily basis. Some kids will expect you to magically pick up on their needs and get frustrated when you don’t. Be patient.

Point is–every child is going to handle things differently. Every single day.

And that’s ok.

Teachers can play a critical role in supporting deployed parents as well by keeping them informed about their children’s progress. For example, some soldiers may want to know via backchannels how their child is faring in school. Teachers and soldiers can provide mutual insights for how to support children in different ways.

But remember–just because a soldier doesn’t seem to be starving for, or constantly seeking, daily information, that doesn’t mean s/he doesn’t care. Sometimes, a piece of news–no matter how banal you might believe it to be–can rock a soldier’s world in either direction. Getting information from home can be an emotional rollercoaster. In turn, the soldier’s communication to you may not be the most honest, as s/he aims to protect your feelings. The most important thing teachers can do is establish an open channel of communication so that military parents feel welcome to reach out whenever they need.

You may also want to consider ways to bring active servicemen, servicewomen, and veterans into your classroom through different activities. Letter writing, care packages, and Valentine’s cards are great ways to start. Sending music, videos, posters, banners, candy, and much-coveted supplies from home can certainly bring long-lasting smiles. Thoughtful notes can also build kids’ awareness of service and show soldiers and veterans that the larger community cares about them.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity to connect students with troops and veterans is to do an interview or have a visit with a veteran. This can be a tough and emotionally charged experience–and an amazing learning opportunity. Inviting family members can also elucidate wonderful understandings into how others have dealt with adversity while lending another perspective. Reunions and homecomings are not always Hollywood-style; soldiers have much to contend with internally and externally during their reintegration into the world they once knew. Again, increased awareness and thoughtful listening are key components of support.

Before the visit, bolster students’ background information and teach them to really listen to the stories and answers they hear. It’s important to honor visitors’ time, but it’s also critical to let students ask questions. (However, please don’t let them ask, “How many people did you kill?”) I suggest having students prepare questions in advance in case they get nervous. Gentle, leading questioning can also move the conversation along. You can also consider inviting two veterans to speak so no one feels “on the spot.” For some veterans, this may be the first time they’ve ever been given the opportunity to talk about their service.

It’s not easy to hear difficult stories and discuss them–for soldiers and students alike. But teaching all students– especially those in military families–how to have tough conversations, listen well, ask good questions, and show gratitude is a great way for kids to learn compassion and better understand the sacrifices our soldiers, veterans, and their families make during all phases of deployment and service.

Wendi Pillars has been teaching language learners of all ages, K-12, for 18 years. Prior to that, she served in the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery, including deployment to the Middle East during the First Gulf War. She is National Board certified, an active member with the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory, and serves as a facilitator for the Teacher Leadership Initiative.

Photo courtesy of Mike Mozart.

 

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  • Stacey Cabral-Levesque

    Timely Words

    Thank you, Wendi! As always, so inspirational and right on point. We can do so much more for our military members and their children. As a veteran myself, I have been able to bring my stories to students who always listen with rapt attention and then bombard me with questions! I love it!

    • WendiPillars

      Valuable gifts

      Hi, Stacey! I didn’t realize you were also a veteran. Tell me more! 

      I’m so glad you use your stories in the classroom and that your students are obviously learning how to engage respectfully. There are multiple aspects of service that apply to the classroom, a unique connector to different realities, for sure.  I’m one who has rarely mentioned it, though, and many of my students over the years never knew of my service. 

      Thank you!