Modern Families: What Educators Need to Know

By Brenda Álvarez

Modern Family” may be a show on television about different family structures. But now that students and families throughout the U.S. are more diverse than they were 30 years ago, “Modern Family” is much more than a sitcom.

Today’s family is less homogenous and monochromatic than ever before. They’re often a blend of cultures, ethnicities, and races. A salient shift in parental roles is on the rise, too, with fathers serving as nurturers and mothers serving as breadwinners. The number of same-sex parents is also increasing, and represents the evolution of family. These diverse family structures make up today’s modern family. Keeping them engaged will require different tactics, especially when it comes to parental engagement and creating a welcoming school environment.

Here’s a closer look at four distinct family units:

Breadwinner Moms

Leah Weaver is a compliance officer (attorney) for U.S. Bank in Minnesota and the mother of two girls, Maisie, 6, and Ella, 4. Leah is the sole breadwinner of the family.

Her husband, Aaron, is a stay-at-home dad. He man- ages the household, which includes prepping backpacks and getting the girls to the bus on time.

Four years ago, when their youngest daughter was born, the Weavers decided to have one parent stay home while the other worked. It turned out that Mom was the moneymaker.

“We’re fortunate where I make enough money,” says Weaver. “We’ve had to do some creative budgeting and we do pinch our pennies, but it’s worked for us.”

The scenario is not uncommon.

Last year, a Pew Research Center study showed that between 1960 and 2011, the number of households with children whose mothers were either the sole or primary source of income for their families rose from 11 to 40 percent. The rise is connected to the growing number of workingwomen, who make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force.

Does Weaver feel connected when it comes to school engagement?

“The teachers still engage us,” says Weaver. “We feel fortunate that they’ve been responsive. “But it’s really hard to stay engaged. I wish I could do more volunteering or chaperoning on trips because I want to see my kids at their school, but there are only so many hours in the day.”

Many teachers recommend parents read at home with their children, check homework and backpacks, and get students to bed on time.

Lynn Nordgren, a 17-year veteran elementary school teacher in Minneapolis, is the local president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. She explains that in addition to providing academic support at home, there is still plenty for busy moms to do for the school.

Nordgren suggests moms purchase classroom supplies, like a box of Kleenex or a pack of pencils. On cold winter days, moms can arrive 15 minutes early and help students remove gloves, hats, and coats. Moms can make phone calls about a special event or send reminders about parent-teacher conferences.

“These things are a big help,” says Nordgren, adding, “Coming in and eating lunch with students—not just your child—and talking to them about what they’re eating or learning is also helpful. Or, if they can just come and say, ‘hi’ to the child,” ex- plaining that kids like it when their family shows up to school.

Keeping these breadwinning moms engaged without overwhelming them boils down to understanding the family dynamic and communicating about the type of support that is doable for moms.

PTA Dads

Tradition, or perception, once dictated that mothers were the parents involved in parent-teacher groups. Those days are waning. According to the National PTA, in 2009, 10 percent of men belonged to the 5.5 million-member organization. Just five years ago, the number was 3 percent.

Their reasons for joining may vary, but Hector Ruiz, the dad of 8-year-old Elsee, and 5-year-old Mateo, says he joined, “because my parents weren’t so involved. I remember always wanting them to be there more than they had been.” Ruiz is PTA president at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Arlington, Va. He’s had an official leadership role for two years, but started volunteering when Elsee was in kindergarten. “I volunteered so often that the principal of the school asked if I would consider helping out in an official capacity,” he says.

For Ruiz, being asked was the key to getting involved. “I probably would not have been as involved…if someone didn’t encourage me.”

In 2004, National PTA surveyed nearly 2,700 men to learn how to get more men involved. Key takeaways were asking and making membership pitches more relevant to males by, for example, letting them know their involvement would benefit their children and their children’s school. Survey respondents said they wanted to see promotion of male involvement to help encourage more men to join, and they wanted more opportunities tailored toward men, such as “dads only” events for fathers and daughters or fathers and sons.

Recent years have seen more effort aimed at increasing male involvement in schools. In southern Indiana, Natalie Jones, a special education teacher and area council PTA president in Evansville, organized a campaign dubbed “Real Men Join the PTA.”

The year-long campaign used a photo of Evansville men to showcase the city’s great diversity of fathers. Hometown notables included the mayor and sheriff. Lesser-known residents were also featured, and included single and older dads, a veteran, a police officer, and a restaurant owner. The image, which had a hot-pink background, was plastered on billboards all around town, and also appeared on T-shirts and yard signs.

“We get it. It’s not just about moms,” says Jones. “Years ago, moms were baking cookies. Now, we’re dealing with is- sues like bullying, sexting, and childhood diabetes. It’s important to have both parents involved.”

“That’s My Mom Too”

Heather Kawamoto of Takoma, Wash., legally married her wife, Kay, in 2012. They are mothers to Kayleigh, age 10. Kawamoto recalls taking their daughter to school five years ago. Referring to Heather, the teacher asked Kayleigh, “Who’s that?”

“That’s my mom,” Kayleigh said.

“And who’s that?” the teacher asked Kayleigh, this time referring to Kay.

“That’s my mom, too,” Kayleigh answered. Without pause or confusion, the teacher asked students who else had two moms. Kawamota mentions an excited student who said that her dad had a new wife, so that meant she had two moms, too! The exchange sent a strong message to her daughter, Kawamoto explains, one that said, “My family is not abnormal.”

“We were able to say, ‘I’m Kay and I’m Heather and we’re Kayleigh’s moms.’ No one asked, ‘Who’s the real mom? Where’s the father?’ We could just be her moms without being questioned or having to explain our roles,” Kawamoto says. The school principal and education support professionals at the elementary school within Takoma Public Schools also created a welcoming environment for Kawamoto and her family.

The principal invited all families to visit with her, creating a sense of support. The paraeducators, who are often the first to greet and receive families, were professional and supportive. If anyone had an opposing view to their family structure, it was not visible to the Kawamotos.

This was a dramatic difference from when Kawamoto’s stepson, Jack, was in middle school 13 years ago in Pierce County, Wash. “The assumption was Jack’s mom and dad were the only caregivers.” But when Kawamoto, Kay, and Jack’s dad showed up at the parent-teacher conference, teachers were blatantly shocked, asking Kawamoto who she was and why she there.

“All of a sudden you have to share this relationship you have. I have no problem outing myself…but if Jack’s father had brought his wife it wouldn’t have been an issue,” says Kawamoto.

She recalls painful years when her family didn’t feel welcomed. Kawamoto wasn’t Jack’s mother. She wasn’t his father. She was a parent who loved him, dearly, but didn’t fit within their paperwork. She explains today: “I would say I’m his ‘stepparent’ and their response would be, ‘Oh, so Jack’s father is your husband.’”

“Having a gay or lesbian parent is a social stigma and unfortunately that was reinforced by staff, the principal, and peers. We had no desire to be in the PTA and part of that was in protection of Jack. It was such an unsupportive experience for him,” she sadly says.

Though the experience occurred 13 years ago, opposition toward same-sex parents and marriages remains. “Just because you don’t know doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” says Kawamoto.

Frank Burger, a biology and physical science teacher in Flint, Mich., says, “Things are changing, but there’s still some resistance,” referring to the reluctance within school settings to openly embrace same-sex parents.

And it’s simple, everyday interactions that can send the wrong or right message. “I’m cognizant of the language,” says Burger, “but I’m an openly gay male. So instead of telling students, ‘Take this home to your mom or dad,’ I’m saying, ‘Take this to your parents.’”

Vernacular aside, school policy is outdated, too. For example, some schools only recognize the parent of record or the birth parent, stripping away the other parent’s authority and ability to speak up on behalf of their children.

School forms can be updated to help create a more welcoming school environment. Instead of the father-mother language, forms can indicate parent or guardian.

It’s such a heterosexist viewpoint where every child has a mother and father…and this is the only option,” says Kawamoto. “All these messages one piece of paper gives a family before they even walk into a school…it’s micro-aggression of an assumption of what a student’s family makeup should be.”

Changing a school form to reflect a gender-neutral tone may be minor, and it may require school board approval, but “it’s significant for a family,” Kawamoto says.

“Welcoming Schools,” a project of the Human Rights Campaign, provides schools with resources on how to be more inclusive and how to create learning environments that welcome and respect all students.

The group offers professional development tools, lessons, and information on topics like embracing family diversity, avoiding gender stereotyping and affirming gender, and end- ing bullying and name-calling.

Not So Single Parent

During business hours Peggy Hernandez of Fairfax County, Va., treks through the Capitol grounds in Washing- ton, D.C. She goes to and from the U.S. Capitol Building, House and Senate offices, the Library of Congress, and other landmark buildings.

“I have a lot of meetings and I do a lot of walking,” says Hernandez, who works for the Architect of the Capitol, which is responsible for the upkeep of the Capitol grounds. During non-business hours Hernandez works a “second job,” as mom to her sons, Cassius, 11, and Lazaro, 8. Her duties include the usual pick-ups and drop offs at school. But it can also include—and in one night—lacrosse, baseball, and basketball practice, and a book fair at school. Hernandez is the sole breadwinner and caretaker of her boys. She is, by standard definition, a single parent. She identifies as a single parent, but doesn’t necessarily always “feel” like a single parent because her boys do get some support from their father.

“My situation is different,” she says, explaining that she wouldn’t go as far as identifying her situation as co-parenting, which is when parents maintain equal responsibility for a child’s upbringing.

“My ex-husband lives in Texas,” she says, “but he’s a phone call every night. He’ll also go through the Fairfax County Schools website and Blackboard services to stay informed.”

Through technology, more divorced, separated, or co-parenting families can stay connected to their child’s education.

Thinking back, Hernandez says, “For back-to-school nights, a lot of the information presented can be done through a webinar,” under- standing that schools may not want to take away from the human element, but that type of engagement via technology has its benefits for families like Hernandez’s. The most important point, she says, is open communication between families and schools. “I always give information up front. I want them to know that their dad is in Texas just so they know it’s different.”

Hernandez also wants to know the school’s capabilities. For example, can the teacher call the boys’ father through Skype or FaceTime during parent-teacher conferences? Or, is there a way to get him on speakerphone? “That would help me with the boys to show that we’re all a united front and they can see that, ‘Oh! Dad knows…it’s not just mom.’”

Communication and collaboration are the keys to parental engagement. Whether its mom and dad, mom only, mainly dad, mom and mom, or dad and dad, most parents want to be involved and engaged by their child’s school. Some parents may need to be asked or can only give an hour of their time. Others may need some encouragement or be given additional tools, like technology, to be as engaged as they can. The idea is to understand the uniqueness of each family and help create a welcoming environment for all students and their families.