Classroom Teachers on the Frontlines of Divorce
My daughter has been through a divorce. She now shares custody of her two children with her ex-husband living three states away from the rest of her family.
The children were aged one and three when her husband decided he no longer wanted to be married. Today they peacefully (relatively) co-exist in a small community. Differences still exist between them and have resurfaced recently when their son entered Kindergarten. Information wasn’t reaching both parents because the teacher didn’t use email but sent paper messages home with the child who spent fifty percent of his nights with each parent. Parent Teacher Conferences exposed the conflicts between the parents that had led to the divorce. The teacher’s response was simply that the two parents needed to learn to talk to each other and agree on the issues. I wonder if the teacher realized if they could do that they would still be married.
This situation led me to ask the considerable number of people I know in the field of education what, if any, training they received in dealing with the impact of divorce on their students in the pursuit of their degrees in education. I haven’t had a single one tell me they received any. As a result, I did some research myself on the subject. It turns out there is plenty of information available. My suggestion is school counselors garner some of this information and present an annual professional development exercise for the staff on the subject of helping students deal with divorce, both in their own family or in the families of their friends. I would encourage them to include a thirty-minute session for teachers to troubleshoot together discussing situations they have personally faced and how they dealt with them.
I recently sat next to an elementary school teacher who told me she would be insulted if she were asked to spend thirty minutes of her professional development time receiving instruction in how to deal with the complications of divorce on her students. She said in her school they were so inundated with security threats and violence in their classrooms, they didn’t have time to waste on simple domestic problems like divorce. I wondered where she thought her violent children were coming from. Two parent, stable homes?
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Before I go any further let me state for the record that in my experience for every one disappointing teacher I have ever encountered, I have known at least a dozen who are exemplary, caring professionals. With so many responsibilities piled on them on top of their basic responsibility to teach the academic subjects appropriate for the grade level they are assigned, you can hardly blame them for not being master counselors concerned with each of their students’ home life.
Still, a child spends more time at school than at home with their parent or parents during their waking hours of the day. When their home life is in crisis, school is often their place of security because it is the one thing in their life that remains unchanged. A million new children a year are affected by divorce, and many of them may not get the support they need at home because their parents are preoccupied with this major crisis in their own lives. This tension from their parents cannot help but create a burden for the child. There may not be obvious outward signs of trouble that would lead to a referral to the school counselor. But the situation often results in a child’s lack of energy for schoolwork and friends. This result does become obvious to the classroom teacher. That teacher should be empowered and equipped to help that student through their difficult period of adjustment.
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The example of my daughter’s Parent Teacher Conference problem has a simple solution. Teachers could meet with each parent separately even if the time allotted has to be divided in half. Each parent would be free to ask questions about their concerns without the appointment becoming a venue for conflicts with the ex-spouse. It would also serve the purpose of the teacher being able to observe both parents to gauge their commitment to the child’s education and development and their individual concerns. Further counseling can be recommended to either or both parents if it proves necessary. My researched showed many school districts hold regular group meetings for children of divorce to show them their situations are not unique.
Teachers who simply provide a little extra support to a child going through the separation of their parents can make a huge difference. A few moments spent greeting the child or showing an interest in them personally can help remind the child that school is a secure place in their life that is not changing. A teacher who knows the first year is generally the hardest for divorcing families can go a long way towards making their classroom one constant in a child’s changing world.
In some cases just the passage of time is not enough to heal the on-going problems related to their parents’ divorce. In these situations children can draw comfort from helping a fictional character cope with similar problems. A selected reading assignment to be done as a homework assignment or one-on-one time with the teacher can help a child of divorce learn that painful problems do not last forever and can be solved.
My hope is this hub will stimulate conversations among classroom teachers who are on the frontlines of divorce and its consequences on a daily basis. As advocates for their students, they may be the one constant those children can depend on for the support they need at their most vulnerable time in their young lives. A starting point for professional development might be the use of the paper, Divorce and Children, a collaboration of parents and teachers, first published in “Our Children” the national PTA magazine published in August/September 1999.