It is pretty likely that every teacher will have a colleague’s child in their classroom at some point in their career. Even with the best of intentions, these children can sometimes have a hard time at school in ways that are different to their peers whose parents work outside the school. It is crucial that teachers are mindful of the specific challenges that staff children may face. What is it like to be a staff member’s child? What can we do (or not do) to help them be happy and successful?
Staff children often have different kinds of relationships than their peers with teachers and even administrators. It is not just an in-school relationship but one that extends to family life. It could be that their parents and family are socialising with their teachers, and or even travelling on holidays together. It is likely that these children have access to school related information, however accidental, that their peers do not have. In speaking to a number of young people whose parents are teachers in international schools, very few of them were comfortable with their classmates knowing about this side of their lives.
Staff children fear being seen as “different.” They want to be treated like their peers so they can blend in and be accepted. This is a critical developmental need for adolescents: to belong. This is not helped with teachers asking them about their peers, or questions about school life that they would not ask of other students. This might be in social settings, when staff children often mix with their teachers outside of school. No child wants to be labelled the grade level snitch, and certainly not a staff member’s child. All kids want to fit in, and staff children are no exception. We can help them to fit in by not singling them out, no matter what the setting.
Staff children are just like any other children - they need friends that they can trust and with whom they can feel free and valued. This friendship group is not always easy for a staff child to build. Some classmates might have ulterior motives, such as the imagined benefits of knowing a staff member’s child. Or it may be that some classmates do not want anything to do with them at all, and perhaps even encourage others to alienate them. Friendships can be much more high risk for staff children than we might think, something that also extends to romantic relationships and the corresponding highs and lows of dating and breakups. The friends they do have are likely to be very special, loyal, and grounded in high levels of trust. The caring adults in the lives of these children should be mindful of these dynamics as they provide academic, social, and emotional support.
The Politics of Grades
There was a running theme amongst many of the staff children interviewed for this piece: if a staff member’s child gets a top grade then you can pretty much guarantee that someone in the class will make a comment. Either they got the grade because their parent socializes with the teacher, or the teacher is afraid of the parent for some reason. Or they must have seen the test beforehand. And if they fail a test then the gossip changes tack: they must be really stupid because a staff member’s child does not fail. All testing and assessment can suddenly become high stakes, with destructive psychological and emotional impact. This is why most children reported that they did not want their grades to be shared in a whole class setting. Staff children live a highly visible life, whether they wish to or not. Whilst we can never safeguard them from determined gossip, there are things we can do to reduce the likelihood of singling out children in these kinds of situations.
Respect Their Space
When a teacher walks into a classroom they should have a good idea of the learning needs and identity of each child. This is as true for a staff member’s child as it is for any other. Some may prefer not to speak up in class so as to keep a low profile. Others may have no such fears, but be anxious that a teacher might make reference to something indicating an out of school relationship. As a general rule, staff children do not want to be singled out, or otherwise identified by this defining characteristic. Imagine how they might feel if you reference them as Mrs X’s daughter? Or an accidental reference to the fun you had at a family BBQ, that implicitly threw a spotlight on a staff member’s child? It is helpful and reassuring for staff children to know that their teacher understands and respects their situation and space.
Holidays and Home Life
In some international schools, one of the employee benefits may take the form of school places. This means that colleagues are not only teachers but also school support staff. It would also be a mistake to assume that all children studying in international schools are from wealthy families. Let’s remember that not every child’s family can afford to travel internationally for every school holiday. This means it is a good idea to check some assumptions before asking students to share things like family experiences. This might be holidays, birthday parties, or traditional celebrations. A well-intentioned ice breaker like “where did you travel for the holiday?” or “what did you get for Christmas?” can be very threatening for staff children who may not have the means to travel as exotically as their peers, or whose parents are able to lavish expensive gifts when the holiday season comes around. Speaking with staff children, this is the one area about which they most definitely do not want to be asked!
Working with the children of our colleagues is a tremendous opportunity to enrich the lives of our co-workers through making their children’s school lives safe and liberating. But it requires us to pay attention to the particular needs and positionality of these children, for whom school and home can become all too easily intertwined. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Natasha Winnard has come across many amazing young people in more than 20 years as an international educator, guidance and college counsellor, and mentor in schools in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. Natasha Winnard Consultancy provides holistic, personalized guidance for young people and their families looking for support in the world of international education.