Q: I’m a 7th-grade teacher in a wealthy school district, but that doesn’t mean everyone has money. There’s a low-income apartment complex nearby that feeds into the school. I also teach a few students every year whose families have fallen on hard times, usually because a parent has lost a job or has suddenly became a single parent. I often cringe when I hear their classmates talking cavalierly about their family’s weekend cruise, or their latest iPhone or computer game or pair of fancy sneakers. They think nothing of getting a Frappuccino at Starbucks, so it would never occur to them that other kids might not be able to spend $5 on a milkshake. Or that other kids might be told to limit the number of party invitations they accept because their parents can’t be buying gifts constantly. The kids whose families are struggling financially mostly stay mum, but I’m sure these interactions add up and are upsetting. As a teacher, I’m wary of wading into sensitive territory, and I’ve always kind of just “let it be,” but it’s starting to bother me more the longer I teach. How can I bring this up and foster some sensitivity around class issues? I’m not looking for curriculum guidance — I think I do a pretty job discussing socioeconomic status through class readings. I’m hoping to take a more direct, personal approach. These are weird times, though, and I don’t want to get in trouble! How would you bring up this stuff?
A: It’s the elephant in the room. Teachers are talking more about gender and race issues, but wealth and privilege are often taboo. I agree with you that this is a mistake, but I understand why it’s scary to tackle class differences. From a logistical standpoint, it’s also hard to know when to have these conversations. While they’re a natural fit for advisories, homerooms, community circles, or morning meetings, the curriculum can be a springboard for discussion, too.
Start by identifying real issues that have cropped up for your students in the past. Make a list so you’ll cover scenarios the kids find relevant. Maybe you know of a student who didn’t get invited anywhere because the other students knew she couldn’t afford the activities. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, and you remember a child who thought classmates only befriended him because they wanted an invitation to his ski house. Kids learn best when you appeal to their emotions, so tell stories, present scenarios, and role-play. You can use a Google doc or collect index cards to solicit their thoughts anonymously. What do they see as the biggest challenges in this area? Do they want to share any personal experiences (anonymously or not)? Do you, as the teacher, want to disclose anything personal? That can be a powerful way to create a safe, trusting space. Speaking of safe spaces, make sure you collectively agree on rules regarding privacy and confidentiality.
Talk about perspective-taking and the lens through which they see the world, too. If they’re a straight-A student, for instance, they might have a hard time relating to someone with a learning challenge. If they’re naturally thin and athletic, they can’t know what it feels like to be the one obese student in PE class. Similarly, ask them to imagine what it might feel like to be the only one who can’t buy anything during a group outing to the mall. Can they recall a time when they felt like they had more — or less — than someone else? What are some assumptions they think people make about them because of their socioeconomic status? What are some judgments they’ve made about others?
Economic disparities make adults and kids uncomfortable, and you have to acknowledge that reality first. Then ask them to try to expand their thinking. How could they ensure they don’t leave anyone out or make anyone feel uncomfortable? Perhaps they could suggest a sleepover instead of a shopping trip, or enact a “no gift” policy for parties, or think carefully before they complain that they’re only going somewhere exotic for part of winter break.
You mentioned your fear of getting in trouble, so clear your plans with an administrator. Consider emailing parents ahead of time as well. They often don’t know how to have these conversations either, and they might appreciate your sending home discussion prompts or handouts that could facilitate dialogue at home.
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