When Mom’s a Marine
Life can be tough when you’re constantly moving and your parents are in danger.
By Chris Bartolomeo
The new student shows up in November, knows nobody, isn’t familiar with the schoolwork, and may have no records from his previous school.
Sound familiar? It’s a situation facing many teachers around the country. One group of highly transient students come from military families, who move about three times as often as most American families, says the Johns Hopkins University Military Child Initiative. There are more than one million military children in U.S. public schools and many move 10 or more times before graduating from high school, according to Department of Defense statistics.
Jennifer Arsenault enjoys a teaching moment with two students from military families at Birdneck Elementary School in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“Too often, our military dependents don’t receive the help they need when they move into public schools,” says Sheridan Pierce, president of the Federal Education Association/NEA, which represents 6,000 education employees who work in the Department of Defense school system worldwide. Pierce, a math and chemistry teacher with 37 years in the classroom, notes, “Some teachers think of military kids as just passing through. These kids face the same challenges the rest of their peers do—insecurity, peer pressure, trying to fit in. Add to it that they’re moving every year or two and may have parents away—it’s very stressful, especially if the parent is in a combat zone.”
How can public schools help?
Pierce says public schools could be more flexible about both instructional and extracurricular activities. Honor societies should admit students who were in an honor society in a previous school, and clubs shouldn’t have membership deadline cutoffs or too-stringent requirements, he says.
“The most difficult part for military students in a new school centers around social adjustment,” says school psychologist Michael Priser. “Many adjust well, but others have difficulties.” He recommends that schools assign “peer welcomers” to new students.
Linda Boswell, an education specialist for the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, emphasizes the period when a child has just come into a new school. “Their first two weeks, students are very fragile,” she says, and it makes all the difference if new students have a “peer buddy” to eat lunch or spend recess with—someone to ease those times in the school day when a child can feel most like “the new kid on the block.”
Teachers also need to be alert for signs a military child is suffering from a parent’s deployment. “We try to emphasize that parents should make schools aware when a child has a parent away,” says Kathy Wooldridge, a school liaison officer for the U.S. Navy’s Hawaii region. “Military families might hesitate to do this. They don’t want their child to get special treatment. But it’s good if a teacher knows.”
“The parent may be sent to the Middle East and be separated from the family for 12 or 18 months,” says Priser. Teachers can watch for signs of stress, like changes in academic performance, mood swings, sudden behavioral problems, changes in eating patterns, or becoming withdrawn. While military children face special challenges, they have a lot to offer in the classroom, those who’ve worked with them attest. Says Wooldridge, “Military kids are open, flexible, have seen the world. That’s a real asset when kids are studying geography or history.”
“The military child is very motivated,” says Pierce. “They do a very good job of transitioning if they have some choices and opportunities to become part of their school community.”