When my kids went back to school last year I nearly flunked my first assignment. Asked to send in a family photo, I panicked. What sort of photo would I send in now that my ex-husband and I were divorced?
This was exactly the case for Kris DeCorby, an experienced teacher and newly single parent to her two children, now in first and fourth grades in Sioux Lookout, Ontario.
“Life is complicated when you’re not divorced, but divorce adds a new dimension,” says DeCorby. She felt particularly ill at ease during the back-to-school family barbecue last year, and while she hopes to feel more comfortable over time, as a teacher, she wants divorced families to know there are ways to make awkward school situations easier.
“I want parents to know they should feel comfortable informing their child’s teacher of what’s going on at home,” DeCorby says. “Even if you and your co-parent are amicable, it’s important to share information with us. We are happy to hold two separate parent-teacher interviews if a joint meeting is uncomfortable. We can accommodate the schedules of parents who work full-time.”
She says the most challenging aspect of working with divorced families is often ensuring both parents receive the same communication with the school. Now that many teachers use classroom management apps, digital portfolios, and distribute class newsletters and school news electronically, both parents, as well as other caregivers, can easily be added to the list.
Erika Englund is a divorce attorney in Folsom, Calif., and hosts a radio show called Split Decisions, which helps listeners manage divorce issues in a positive way. She herself is a single mom to her children, ages 3 and 5.
“School life tends to be tailored to two-parent families. I didn’t know how I was supposed to manage this,” says England, who is about to host a show on the very topic of back to school for divorced families.
Even though her children are entering preschool and kindergarten, she has already encountered challenges.
“When I had to send in a family photo, I had to decide what family means to us,” says Englund.
She chose to share a photo of her with her children and ex-husband because they co-parent closely and it felt right. But the logistics of orientation were trickier.
“The kindergarten and preschool orientations were scheduled at the same time so one parent could attend each event, but that didn’t work for our family. The dominant perspective is for there to be two parents in a family. How do you make it work when you’re a single parent?”
Education leaders are working to address this sort of bias throughout the system. Stacey Gonzales, director of curriculum and instruction in Chicago, says that professional development for teachers across the country has focused on overcoming common assumptions about what typical families look like.
“We’ve come a long way in the last 10 to 15 years in terms of having collaborative discussions with educators,” Gonzales says. “Some teachers might assume that a student has a mom or lives with a mom, and we don’t realize that what we say can be based in bias. We are becoming more aware that perhaps our own traditional views of a family are not what our students experience.”
Bias can be part of the equation when teaching older students. “High school teachers often have the hardest time because kids look like adults,” says Gonzales. “We have to remind these teachers their students don’t yet have adult coping skills, and we have to be sensitive and supportive.”
To help address any assumptions from the start, elementary teachers are encouraged to send out questionnaires on the first day of school asking parents to share any personal information that might be pertinent to their child’s performance in school.
“We want to allow parents the opportunity at the beginning to tell us about their family,” says Gonzales. “We also have parent nights where we can meet with parents, and we invite them to contact us if there are any issues. We are here to provide your child with the best educational and emotional experience. This should be a safe place.”
Communication with schools is confidential, and parents can ask to speak with the teacher, principal, school social worker, or guidance counselor. Parents can and should also ask for two copies of everything — report cards, school information and even text books, if a student divides the week among both parents. Those who feel uncomfortable about an assignment, like sending in a family photo, should let their teacher know it was a struggle.
“Ask in a kind way if things can be done with your family situation in mind,” Gonzales says. “We want to know if your child is going to struggle this year. We want to help you through any transition. There are many ways we can support you.”
Since my ex-husband and I separated when my kids were 2 and 3, I decided to send two separate photos to school: one of me with my boys, and one of the kids with their dad. This year will be no different, except now I’m a little more savvy. We will explain our situation to our boys’ new teachers and ask for duplicates of things like report cards. It seems to get a little easier each new school year.
Erin Silver is a writer and blogger based in Toronto. Visit her at erinsilver.ca.
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