As we head back to school we asked a teacher, “What advice can you share with parents and educators of military-connected students?”
What do teachers think about military kids in their classrooms? The Operation Dandelion Kids staff asked seasoned educator Ms. Erin Gilbert, an elementary school teacher in Fairfax County, VA, for her thoughts on military-connected children. Ms. Gilbert gave us her honest take on our kids and offered some advice for the upcoming school year.
ODK: How long have you worked in education and in what roles?
I have worked for 25 years as a teacher. 15 years were spent in Prince George’s County, MD. For some of those years, I worked with kids whose parents were at Andrews Air Force Base. I taught for ten years in Fairfax County, VA. In Fairfax County, I taught children whose parents were in the military, in a variety of roles. I have been a classroom teacher for all of the 25 years – working with 4th, 5th and 6th graders in a regular education classroom, as well as in the Advanced Academic Program (formerly called The GT Program – gifted and talented students).
ODK: Can you identify specific strengths military kids have that their civilian peers don’t – perhaps traits you believe are a result of their military lifestyle?
Military-connected kids are easy going, make friends easily, and adjust smoothly to new routines and are focused.
ODK: Can you identify unique challenges military kids face academically and socially because of their military lifestyle?
The biggest academic challenge military kids face is a gap in learning outcomes.
ODK: Is there anything from your experience that you believe supports the idea that military kids bring unique needs to the classroom?
ODK: Given your experience with other sub-groups of students (e.g. students living in poverty, bilingual students, special education students), do you recognize military kids as a sub-group of students with unique needs? Why or why not?
Many teachers feel the need to work with military students on an individual basis so they are comfortable in class, which presents challenges for the teacher, who needs to carve out some time for this. Socially, although military students make friends easily, it can take a while to break into a “friend group” especially as they enter the middle school years. Military kids don’t want to be too obtrusive/overzealous as appearing “weird or odd” would not be proactive. Acclimating slowly into a group is a common practice with military kids (from my experience working with 6th graders). I think that emotional support is a big area of need – kids need to feel welcomed into their new environment, maybe have a “lunch-bunch” with the teacher/counselor and other new kids to express their feelings with those who are going through a similar experience. I would suggest doing this a few times during the school year. Teachers need to be aware of military students who don’t feel like they are fitting in and facilitate some new friendships by being creative but not drawing too much attention to what is happening.
ODK: If you could give the parents of a military kid one piece of advice about managing their child’s education during a transition specific to the military (a move or deployment), what would that be?
One piece of advice I would give to parents of a military kid who is transitioning is to set up a meeting with the teacher and/or counselor if the child has had difficulties in the past with transitions, so the teacher/counselor can be aware and assist in areas on an as-needed basis. Also, reinforce to the child they should have an open mind when having a new experience.
ODK: If you could educate other educators about the unique needs of military connected children what would you focus on? What advice would you give fellow teachers who are welcoming new military students to their communities?
If I could educate other teachers on focusing on the needs of welcoming military kids, I would have them focus on the emotional piece – being proactive about making sure they feel like they are part of their new community right away and giving them a place and time to talk with others who are having the same experience at their school. I would also suggest that the counselor/teacher do “check-ins” by having them join a lunch group, etc.
ODK: As we begin a new school year what advice would you give a new student coming into your school?
As we begin a new school year, I would advise new students to have an open mind about their new school and making friends. Be patient and don’t force anything to happen too fast. And if they need help with their feelings, making friends, etc., feel free to talk to me, the teacher, and I will help any way that I can.