Framing the Family Tree

How teachers can be sensitive to students' family situations

Illustrator: Allegra Laron, Mendota Elementary Madison, WI; Leo Rohn-Capellaro

Illustration: Allegra Laron
Mendota Elementary, Madison, WI

My seven-year-old daughter came home from school with a handmade calico tie for her dad for Father’s Day. The oversized tie was carefully cut from the blue and orange fabric and edged using a pinking shears. She had used puff paints to write “I Love You Dad” down the center of the tie. A glob of paint on the corner of the capital D still appeared wet.

“Let’s give it to Dad on Father’s Day,” she said. I told her we would, but I hoped she would forget by Sunday. She didn’t. We made the trip to visit her father that day, and as I drove the six short blocks, I looked at the mist forming on the windshield and wondered how this could be any more painful.

My daughter grabbed the tie and a roll of masking tape I had put in the back seat. She walked over to the gravestone, which read, “If Love Could Have Saved You, You Never Would Have Died.” She tried to attach the tie to the smooth granite headstone with the tape, but the rain prevented her from perfectly positioning the tie over her dad’s name. Our shared frustration and grief forced us back into the car.

When we reached home, I felt so much anger toward the first-grade teacher, who chose to see the world in one unrealistic way. Why did she assume that all 22 children in her class have a dad—or a dad who is present in their lives?

I thought back to an experience of a childhood friend. Her father died when she was in grade school, but the school carried on with its annual ‘Draw your Dad’ event. The students drew their fathers on butcher paper, using photos as a guide, and hung the sketches in the gymnasium. On a special night, fathers came to school and attempted to find themselves displayed on the walls of the gym. My friend drew her father, not knowing how to approach the teacher about the dilemma she would face the night of the event. That night she sat quietly sat on a folding chair, counting the minutes until she could go home.

I never imagined that more than 30 years later I would experience the same insensitivity when my daughter’s teacher would ignore the statement I had written on the form I sent to school the very first day: “very sensitive about not having a father.”

A Child’s Family

Families are groupings of individuals who may or may not be living together, but are perceived by the child to be “family.” They may be permanent, temporary, or fluid. Children define their families as units that include adults who make them feel safe and happy. They want stability, tradition, and love. Many children get this in large doses, and for others it’s more elusive. Even in cases of abuse, children may still choose to be with their “family.” As children from all types of families face challenges at home, the school setting should be one that offers comfort and that validates all family structures.

Teachers can walk a fine line between validating all types of families and singling out students for that validation. By providing appropriate curriculum, media materials, and visual images in the classroom, teachers can send a powerful message about respect and diversity without embarrassing students or violating their privacy.

Although some teacher preparation programs mention the issue of family diversity, not enough teaching practice takes the diversity of families into account. For example, teachers routinely assign family tree projects, possibly without realizing the confusion and pain these projects cause for some children. Issues of adoption or family of origin can present unique and sensitive dynamics in these types of class assignments. Such projects have the potential to engender ridicule or teasing from peers, especially if teachers don’t actively intervene in discussions.

Of course, many teachers who assign personal “family” projects are replicating practices that have worked well for some students over the years. The calico tie or family tree project may be more indicative of an organization’s unexamined practices than any social statement about families on the part of the teacher.

  Illustration: Leo Rohn-Capellaro

Advocates for Each Other

Both parents and teachers can support each other in challenging activities and school events that might make children or parents feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. For example, parents should be alert to any forms sent home or letters to parents that are not inclusive or that make assumptions about families. Parents outside of disenfranchised communities need to advocate for other parents who face discrimination. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) parents will not always feel safe identifying themselves as members of this community, or blended families might not feel any discussion with the school is necessary to explain who the students’ biological or stepparents are. Non-specific, open terms such as “adult at home” or “friends and families” to include, for example, children of partners of single parents should be used on school forms and flyers for school events. This is a school community issue and all parents can promote inclusive language. Images around the school can celebrate a wide variety of families, and school administrators should support the teachers who make the effort to be inclusive.

Even progressive schools, recognizing the diversity in families, will attempt to modify traditional activities to accommodate certain students—like telling students they can pick whom to give their “Mother’s Day” gifts to. Although well-intentioned, this approach has the potential to increase feelings of alienation and discomfort, not minimize them. Telling a student to select someone else in his or her life who is a close approximation to the person that the majority of students in the class will choose, does not ameliorate the situation.

I asked an elementary teacher for feedback on how I could address this perceived problem in the most sensitive way. After she thought for a moment she said, “You know, I think we often overlook issues of family diversity because they are not as obvious to us as other issues of diversity. We have leadership and resources for other topics of equity and culture, but because our students are so private in many ways about what is going on at home, we don’t necessarily think about it when planning curriculum.” She suggested moving away from projects that might single out students and agreed that the “alternative” project for the students who do not fit the norm can be hurtful.

Beyond Mother’s and Father’s Days

Any classroom activity that requires personal information about a child’s family life may need to be carefully assessed. In addition to the ubiquitous Mother’s and Father’s Day projects, many teachers in the lower grades have students create family photo albums. Without awareness on the part of the teacher, these projects might create feelings of insecurity or even anguish.

In any case, we should clearly delineate the educational benefits of projects that involve children’s private lives. If the goal is to inform students about the diversity in families, maybe students could conduct research and present their work in creative ways such as creating collages of different families. Or teachers could ask students to design their own worksheets for reviewing picture books and popular films.

If the goal is to inform students about the value of their own families, there may be constructive approaches to achieving this goal without requiring that the students divulge personal information. Offering a variety of options—such as personal essays with some measure of anonymity—during a unit on families might give students a welcome alternative. Teachers can offer support and let students know they are available to talk with them or help them find additional help through the school psychologist or social worker.

As we recognize the fluidity of defining families, we can also recognize the ever-changing solutions to addressing social issues in the schools. If we attempt to engage in dialogue with students and other teachers about these issues, we will find that we learn something new about other people’s realities and about our own.

Sudie Hofmann ( teaches in the Department of Human Relations and Multicultural Education at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.