When I walked into the Liberty County Pre-K Center, I was a teacher. When I left, I had a new appreciation for what it means to serve.
The center is a beautiful building in Hinesville, Georgia, located less than half a mile of the gates of Fort Stewart, home of the third infantry division and 11,000 soldiers and their families.
Jacob, an autistic four-year-old, greeted me on the first day of school, 4 years ago, not with a handshake, but a grunt and a rather purposeful peeing of his pants.
Completely unable to communicate, destructive, and endlessly hyper, Jacob was one of the 23 pre-K students in my self-contained special education classes. And like many of my other students, Jacob’s dad was preparing for a year-long deployment to Afghanistan.
Given his special needs, Jacob’s parents were extremely concerned about his ability to comprehend where his father was going and why he was choosing to serve his country.
One-third of students with deployed parents show symptoms of anxiety. Some may struggle with behavior during deployment, affecting their performance and attendance in school. Few teachers outside of the Department of Defense education network are trained or experienced in handling the additional stress and pressure a deployment can cause for children as young as 12 months.
I quickly realized my responsibility as an educator had never been greater and the stakes for my students had never been higher. Jacob and his classmates were beginning their entire educational careers in my classroom, and many of them would be experiencing this new educational environment without one or both of their parents. The remaining members of the household would have the added emotional, financial, and social pressures that a deployment creates.
That year taught me a lot about what the school environment means to our students – whether children of active duty military or otherwise. It taught me that school is a safe space, school offers stability, and effective education is truly a partnership. It meant remembering that often, Jacob’s mother, Debra, was making every important educational decision on her own. It meant that sometimes Jacob or Debra might have a rough day, an emotional day, a day where I needed to focus on the person before I could focus on our colors or how to tie our shoes. It meant that there would be days where I let myself worry about Jacob’s dad, and about my own husband, an officer in his first year serving at Fort Stewart.
Eleven months after that first day of pre-K, Jacob had successfully transitioned to a general education classroom, potty-trained, and able to speak in 5-word sentences. Jacob’s father returned safely from Afghanistan to have his first, real, in-person conversation with his son.
A very short year later, I waved goodbye to my own husband with my one-year-old on my hip. Having watched the toll deployment had taken on the parents I worked with, I was concerned about Lily’s development with her father so far from home and my own network so limited.
As a spouse, parent, and educator in the military community, I finished that year having gained some incredibly valuable – albeit unorthodox – professional development. I learned to ask for help, and when help was offered, I took it. I realized there are just going to be tough days. Tough for me, tough for my kids, tough for our community. I learned to allow myself and others to be sad, angry, and anxious in order to move past the emotions to do the work at hand. I learned to give myself the opportunity to see situations from other’s perspectives. I learned to trust others.
So what can you do if you work with students of our active duty military?
Be human. Listen. Offer help. See beyond behavior and provide a stable environment. Provide opportunities for students to talk about their loved ones, share stories, and demonstrate pride. Include the deployed parent’s perspectives through email, Skype, and care packages. Hold their children to high expectations. Give them a place where they know exactly what to expect.
My husband returned home, and my daughter is a strong and resilient little girl. When I joined Teach For America and began teaching nine years ago in New York City, I knew that I would work in diverse communities facing complex issues. I feel blessed to have spent a portion of my nine years in education since serving the children of our military and as a mother to my very own Army brat. We came to San Antonio in May 2013 when the U.S. Army moved my husband here.
On this Veterans Day, I urge us to remember the 4-year-olds bravely learning their colors, tying their shoes, and waving their flag, patiently waiting for their loved ones to return home.
Sara Taylor is an instructional coach at Teach For America and proud member of the military community.