Compassionate classrooms help students become increasingly sensitive to the many faces of privilege.
I was thinking about this as I watched The Life of Privilege Explained in a $100 Race, embedded in Angela's last post. What if that entire class were made up of kids whose identities were far more similar? Would there have been as much distance between the participants? And without that contrast, would the lesson have been lost?
I guess my bigger question is: how do we help our children understand privilege when they don't live and learn in richly diverse places? Angela and I wrestled with this quite a bit during the final showcase of a week-long learning experience last summer.
Seeking Diversity in White, Wealthy Communities
The parents were filing into the classroom, greeting their excited children. The whole week was leading up to the final exhibition, where they could show their learning and celebrate their accomplishments with their families and friends.
I noticed one little girl anxiously turning toward the door hopefully, straining to see who was entering. As time passed, her look of anticipation turned to disappointment. All of the other children had their parents joining them at their respective work stations. But she was alone. No one had come.
It took every ounce of restraint in my body not to walk over to her and ask her to show me her work. But I was not there to engage. I was only there to observe empathy and compassion in action.
Thankfully, one of the teachers soon noticed the girl without her parents and slowly walked in her direction.
“My mom’s coming. She’ll be here. She’s just late,” the girl said nervously. But her forlorn expression belied her optimistic words.
The teacher didn’t respond or ask any questions, but gently began to examine the girl’s work. Soon, they were engaged in conversation about her writing, and the girl began to perk up. After a while, the teacher had to move onto reviewing other students’ writing.
By now, the other children had noticed that she was the only one without parents by her side. A couple of her friends caught her eye and invited her over to their table to share each other’s products. The little girl quickly accepted their invitation and began engaging with them. Angela came over to the group, marveling over each of their stories, asking pointed questions and giving plenty of warm feedback.
The little girl’s mother never came, and as they lined up for dismissal, she went on the defensive. “My mom said she’d be here,” she said sheepishly, as if she were required to explain. It was if she was blaming herself for her mother’s absence.
And then our week-long session was over. It was the end of our writing time and the end of this little girl trying to explain why her mother hadn’t come to the celebration. And hopefully, but not likely, the end of her feelings of shame and disappointment.
To this day I don’t know why her mother didn’t come and all the other kids enjoyed the privilege of making their parents proud of them. Could it have been that her mother fell sick? Had an accident? Couldn't leave her job to come to a lunchtime showcase? Was it even possible that attending her daughter’s school events was not important to her?
I will never know the answers to those questions, but as I looked around the room, appreciating the attention that other parents were providing their children, this incident reminded me to step back and think differently about what it means to be privileged.
The event was hosted in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood, and the students attended nearby schools in the district. Without knowing each of these children and their families, one would automatically assume that they enjoyed the privilege of wealth and all that seems to come with it -- including the flexibility that parents have to attend special events at their children’s schools in the middle of the day. The fact that these students had the privilege to attend a specialty camp that enhanced their already high quality education was noteworthy in and of itself.
But this little girl didn’t enjoy the privilege of showcasing her work in the same manner the other kids did. Perhaps this girl came from a single parent home. Maybe her mother cleaned the houses of the other students for a living or worked as a nurse at the local hospital. Maybe she drove a second shift for Uber in order to make ends meet. I could only speculate, and I began to recognize that even my speculations were clouded by my own privilege and bias.
There are many faces of privilege that we must be sensitive to as those who work with and care for children. And that work begins with the careful exploration of ourselves, our own privilege, and how that shapes our perceptions about our students. We must ensure that we never assume what their experiences are, or what they mean to them. We must take care not to shame them or make them feel as if they are less than those who are different from them as well.
That's very difficult work that no one does perfectly. Angela and I realize that it's human to make mistakes here. Reflection can help us learn from them, though.
Reflecting on Missteps and Lost Opportunities
That day, many of the teachers, students, and parents in the room practiced empathy and compassion as they attended to this little girl, gently, sensitively, in a manner that did not call obvious attention to the fact that she was the only one without parents there. And that seemed to soften the blow for her.
As the kids trickled out of the room, I wandered over to the Wishes and Worries chart that Angela invited kids to contribute to on the first day of class. "What are your wishes for this week?" she had asked them. "What do you worry about as a member of this new community?" Each child wrote their responses on sticky notes and added them to the appropriate columns.
It wasn't until Friday that I noticed the note, and I'm not sure that Angela saw it at all. "I'm afraid my mom won't come to the celebration on Friday." My heart broke as I realized we'd missed a tremendous opportunity to give this girl a better day.
I wondered how we might have intervened. I wondered how her mom would have responded, had we tried. Teachers never want to shame parents or suggest how they might do their own jobs better. This makes it difficult for them to speak up.
I've found myself reflecting on other things, too. For instance:
How might the teachers have addressed the notion of privilege if these kids had come back for another day together?
How can we help our kids to know how privileged they are without singling out, blaming, or shaming others?
How should teachers be pointing out the nuances of privilege in a school that on the surface seems to be filled with privileged students? Or should they be addressing privilege at all? The tool below is part of a wider protocol that Angela uses in classrooms. What are your thoughts about this? Consider the community you live and teach in. Would these questions unearth the many faces of privilege that exist there, or would you need to ask different ones in order to accomplish this task?
Most important: How do we get diverse perspectives on the table and help our kids empathize with those who are very different from the people in their own communities? Particularly those who have less power than they do?
As parents, would you feel comfortable if teachers discussed privilege with your kids? How could you continue this discussion at home without making them feel guilty for everything they have, or ashamed for what they don’t have?
For a deeper look into the nuances of privilege read the article Helping Students Explore Their Privileged Identities, from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Discussing privilege, shame, and blame is uncomfortable, but if we're to create compassionate classrooms, we have to be willing to start these conversations. Join the discussion by subscribing to our blog on our home page or by connecting with us on Facebook or Twitter. We're @EllenFeigGray and @AngelaStockman there.