The Perfect Family

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If we’re talking about Perfect Schools in this edition of SEEN, then let’s talk about the Perfect Family. You know the one I’d describe. It’s the family with 2.5 children. The kids are all top students and well-behaved in every event and activity. They always get the perfect attendance awards. The mom and dad have been married for a number of years, and it’s the only marriage for both of them. He’s a businessman yet he still has lots of time for his kids. She’s a stay home mom who volunteers for various activities yet is always supportive about what she’s engaged with.

What a couple! What wonderful kids! They’re such a pleasure to have in classes. And as long as we’re dreaming, don’t forget the grandparents. They show up too and even bring homemade cookies for the class now and then. Oh, for a roomful of those kids and families.

Hmm… I’ve been in education, teaching, administering, and consulting, for oh so many years now. I’m trying to remember a family like that one. My memory may be a bit fuzzy, but I may have had something close to that my first or second year of teaching when I was in a very middle class, white neighborhood in Orange County, California. I was only there three years, and I haven’t been in a school like that since then, but there might have been a family like that. Honestly what I remember more is Dexter from my first year of teaching. He was identified and placed in an ED class at the end of that first year. He taught me a great deal about teaching. My second year there was Michael and of his two siblings, one had cancer and the other a brain tumor. He was the “normal one” as his mom put it, yet he was identified with childhood schizophrenia by the end of the school year. Neither of those families matched my “perfect family” description, yet they both handled their issues with amazing understanding, navigating waters that none of us should ever want for ourselves or our children.

Since those first three years, for me it’s been a delightful blend of ethnicities, languages, cultures, family make-up and dynamics and more. I’ve also taught more students, both regular education and special education students, administered programs, taught at a university level, and facilitated workshops in this country and others. A family in China or in the Republic of Georgia is quite different in some ways than a family in Nashville, Tennessee, yet there are similarities that make my job of engaging families in schools and learning so much richer and deeper. Having worked with these larger parameters, my description of a “perfect family” within a perfect school has changed a great deal.

For me the families I’m working with, the families within a school setting, are all just as they are supposed to be. There are the quiet parents who don’t engage much, but who really want their children to succeed. The kids are quiet too, yet they work hard at school because there’s an expectation that they will do well. There are the noisy parents who show up and get on your case for a low grade or why their child didn’t get to be on the team this week. Their child is usually the instigator in class of the gum on the chair or the frog in the fishbowl. They may be a good student, but more than likely they’re smart just not turning in homework or completing tasks. There are the hovercraft moms who show up for everything and won’t let their children find their own independence, and there are those moms who can’t be found even when you go to their house. Yet all of these parents and their kids provide the contrasts you need to keep things moving and you on your toes.

Then there is the diversity. There are the families that speak Spanish, Hmong, Farsi or Punjabi. The cultures are different and the kids bring with them an expectation of learning that is different from yours and certainly different from the other kids in the class. Just look at the lunches they bring to school, and you can see how different their thinking and their tastes are. It makes for a tapestry at times and a rat maze at others. How do you balance all of that?

And we haven’t even touched on the family dynamics — the divorced and blended families, the gay couples and their children, and grandparents raising their children’s children. Sometimes the families are dealing with alcohol, drugs, cancer, mental health issues, prison, poverty, job loss, CEO of a large corporation with all that stress, or you name any of a myriad of possibilities. I had a boy come to school one day who had knocked a candle over the night before and burned their house down. How do families deal with that or any of the issues of just getting through life sanely?

All of this sounds so daunting. Isn’t there a perfect school somewhere with perfect families? Yes, it’s all of what I’ve just described. These ARE the perfect families. These are the families that will teach us to grow as teachers and administrators and human beings. These are the families that will break our hearts and yet open them to what could be. These are the perfect families for touching our very souls and allowing us to look for ways to hold them, help them, and teach them while they teach us how to care for them and for ourselves. These are just the perfect families that we need because these are just the perfect families that we have in front of us every day.

Dr. Joni Samples is the Chief Academic Officer for Family Friendly Schools (www.familyfriendlyschools.com). Dr. Samples is a former County Superintendent of Schools, Director of Special Education, teacher, mother of four and the author of six books on Family Engagement. Today she provides workshops and materials for schools and parents to support a collaborative effort resulting in better, more supported learning for children.
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