As a principal and a teacher, I have encountered many youth that share my same childhood experience. They, like me, grew up with a single mother — a mother, who faced the daunting challenge of raising her children alone without the emotional and physical support of a father. The reasons fathers are absent are varied: incarceration, divorce, abandonment, or as in my case, death.
My biological father was killed before I could even form an image of him in my memory. Althea Bogany, my mother, found herself thrust into the responsibility of sole guardianship of two boys. With only a high school diploma, she would be in charge of making decisions and choices that would impact her life and the lives of my brother and me. My mother is strong, and her choices, values, beliefs, and thinking have definitely helped sculpt who I am today. When I look into the faces of my students and listen to their stories, I understand the impact their mothers have on them. And when I look around my schools, I see and respect how female teachers nurture, guide, inspire and positively influence our students.
Still, in my role as an educator, I have also witnessed the emotional and psychological stress that both mother and child face when a father is absent and how it plays out in schools. In child study, IEP, and discipline meetings, I have heard and seen the harsh impact on a child’s sense of self and self-worth when a father is not at the table.
Fortunately, I did have a father growing up. My mother married a southern gentleman from Bessemer, Alabama, named Ronnie Bennett, and my childhood memories are formed with him as my father, a great father. My parents were unified in the importance of academic success. It was a consistent message in my house, and together, my parents ensured that my brother and I would make our best efforts to be successful in school, sports and life. They both volunteered their time and energy to coach little league baseball and basketball and never missed a game when my brother and I played in high school.
They each had their own way and their own lessons to teach. My mother was the one who attended every parent-teacher conference and honor-roll ceremony. And while my mother focused on our day-to-day academic efforts, my father was clearly most comfortable encouraging us to give our all on the court and field, and my sense of confidence and determination came from him. He taught my brother and me to dream — to find comfort in exploring the “new” and the “next” in life. These are gifts that I treasure and have given me my strength as I moved from a boy to a man. They are also the skills I applied to my learning and academic success. It was my father that insisted I go into education — he understood the value, he understood the purpose, and he understood me.
So, when I reflect on my story and listen to the stories of my families and students, I keep the lessons my father taught me front and center. And when I look around the room at a staff or family meeting, I see many female faces looking back at me. To keep fathers present and feeling valued at the table, I suggest the following tips:
1. Don’t assume all fathers are the same. By predetermining what role a father should play in the school community, we inadvertently place them in a box which doesn’t allow them to be active participants in the process. Talk to fathers and hear their ideas.
2. Value multiple perspectives. Invite fathers to have a voice and share what is most important for their child. A father’s understanding and mind-set matters and sometimes provides a different perspective from the mother’s. These multiple perspectives can give students the skills they need to create their own successes.
3. Actively target fathers in communication and events. Don’t just call fathers for discipline issues, but call to share stories of academic successes. Reach out to invite them to volunteer in the classroom, chaperone field trips, or attend special events.
These tips not only come to me as an educator and leader of a K-12 community, but also as a single parent. I am first, and foremost, a father. I know how much love, attention and guidance I give my children matters to their growth, success and sense of identity. I also know what it feels like to not be invited to the table. The feeling I had when my daughter’s teacher sent out an invitation for just “the mothers” is still quite prevalent in my thinking and feeling. I must be at the table – there is no other option for me and my daughters and son. Their future depends on it, and so do our schools.