Classism in school

The other day I had the pleasure of volunteering in the kidlet’s class for a field trip and I must say it was an eye opening experience for me on how class divides us in seemingly innocent ways. I went to college in my mid-late 20’s and my undergraduate degree is in African-American studies yet by the time I got my BA, I became obsessed with looking at class. In fact while I think racism is still a huge issue in our culture, it’s the unspoken issue of class that I feel divides us more than anything.

A big thanks to the free flowing credit of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s many of the material markers that divided us fell away. After all you can (though with the lingering Great Recession I truly believe the class markers and rules are being redesigned as I type this) hardly tell who is struggling by the car they drive or the gadgets they carry. I suspect many of the families that I serve have far larger television sets that I own, and I know several have better cell phones than I have.

Yet a visit to a kindergarten class made me ponder the subtleties of class and the impact they can have on your kid’s experience in school and the perceptions and assumptions the teachers make based off class or perceptions of class.

In almost 19 years of parenting, I must admit it’s only been in the last 1-2 years that I have been in a place where volunteering has been possible. See, I was 19 when my son was born and due to the need to work sometimes 2-3 jobs to keep food on the table, there simply was not enough hours in the day to volunteer and I suspect as part of my working class roots it probably never dawned on me to ask and I most certainly was never asked to volunteer in any classroom he was ever involved in. Yet I am a class straddler, a term that has gained popularity due to Alfred Lubrano’s book Limbo. I was born to a solidly working class family, at the time of my birth; neither of my parents had touched foot in a college classroom. My father eventually went onto seminary in his late 30’s and early 40’s but as for straight forward college; it wasn’t in the cards for my folks.

Over the years I have by virtue of education, income and profession moved at least on paper away from my working class roots. Make no mistake though the influences of my childhood and upbringing are still beneath the surface and as a result I struggle and straddle the class line. I am most comfortable talking with the families I serve rather than the money folks who keep us open. Yet I am good at my job and generally able to straddle that line between connecting with a single Mama who has no idea how she will make ends meet (I’ve lived it) yet at the same time I make the other folks feel good and convince them to support my cause because I have learned to speak their language. But I can’t lie, there are days I feel like an imposter…like who is the grown up lady who uses big egghead words and has mastered the mask. Thankfully I am married to a straddler as well so when I come home it’s my safe space.

Yet the other day in my daughter’s class I felt like an imposter. I arrived at the designated time to accompany the class on the field trip and immediately noticed the other Moms. Two of whom I know in passing since we attend the same church. I was immediately struck with how cozy the other Mamas were with the teacher; in fact the other Mamas had brought cups of Starbucks coffee and even had one for the teacher. Nope, no coffee for this Mama and that’s cool but I did feel as if I had entered a clique and it was a tad disconcerting. It appeared the kids knew at least a couple of the other Mamas since as my daughter later informed me; Mrs. M regularly helps out in the class. I immediately sized up the situation and figured I would focus on the kids, many of whom were openly staring at me, after all it’s not too often they see a fully brown person and it was cool. So as we were walking to our destination a couple of the kids told me they were sad that their parents couldn’t come on the trip because they were working. One little boy was almost on the brink of tears that his Mommy was not there, I gently explained that it was okay and that not all parents can come but that his Mommy’s work was important too.

I admit that exchange with the kids is what prompted this post, for starters after making a little bit of chit-chat with the Mamas, I realized that they were stay at home Mamas which means they have the flexibility and time to be involved in the classroom. Yet for many parents that is not an option, especially if they are employed at companies where there is less autonomy over their work schedule. In the months since the kidlet has started school I have observed that the parents who often stand around making chit chat after the bell has rang often are either self-employed, don’t work, or have flexible positions like my own. The parents you see rushing who never stop to chat are the same ones you often see in work uniforms or have the weary look of folks who work at places that will not cut them slack if they are late for work.

During the field trip I had a chance to make small talk with the kidlet’s teacher who was curious about a project we were doing at home that my daughter had mentioned to her. I explained the project and she was so excited about that it that she was wondering if there was a way she could incorporate it into the classroom. That exchange made me think about the ways class lends itself to building social capital.  The daughter of a waitress and a mill worker most likely don’t have the time or ability to take an hour off from work to volunteer and engage with the teacher and create that connection and while no one will ever say it, not building those connections in my opinion can be harmful.  While I don’t have the level of involvement in my daughter’s class that I would like to have due to my own work (yet as I work with the less fortunate and everyone knows this I feel this is given a pass compared to if I couldn’t make meetings because I was the shift supervisor at the local fast food place) I am involved enough that I have noticed that the so-called trouble makers all seem to hail from the lower class.

Schools want parents to be involved in their children’s education yet we cling to ways that are quite classist and don’t allow for connections to be made. Our school recently had an event and I realized that while attendance was decent, the timing of the event definitely was at a time where folks with less flexibility in their schedules were not able to attend. I know teaching is hard work and I can imagine that by five at night teachers want to go home, yet making events at 5:30 in the middle of the week pretty much assures in my opinion that only certainly folks will attend. For an event designed to get parents actively involved in their kid’s schooling maybe such extra enrichment activities should start later or be held on the weekend.

I realize this is a rambling post, but I can’t help but thinking that working class folks and their kids are penalized in school of all places because working class folks often work at jobs that don’t allow them to be involved directly at their kid’s school via volunteering. Even email as the preferred method of staying in touch with parents is not a guarantee for folks who are financially vulnerable. I know that on the contact list for my kid’s class of 19 students, I saw at least 5 folks who had no email addresses listed. I know that at my center out of over 200 registered participants less than 25% have email addresses. This may not seem like a big deal but if you have a young middle class teacher who prefers emailing parents, lack of an email address matters.

I know I have a few educators among my readership; I would love your input.



11 thoughts on “Classism in school”

  1. This was a frustrating issue for me when I was teaching and there are no easy answers. I needed the parents’/family’s help with the student but I sometimes found it hard or next to impossible to get a hold of them. I understood they were working–probably all kinds of hours and I understood that they needed to and probably couldn’t get off or take the time. It was just frustrating. I’d send notes home and never receive a response. Try to call and never get anyone (or get the student him/her self). I used to be the only one standing up for the parents when the other teachers (mainly White, middle class) insisted that they just didn’t care. Sometimes all that was needed was for the child to know that his/her parent knew what was going on in the classroom and that would be enough to get the behavior to change. And I couldn’t even do that much.

    By the time I left teaching, I started to wonder if they did care. On parent-teacher conference day, some teachers would sit in their classroom from 12-7 and no one would show up. Recently, there was a meeting to discuss our town’s struggling/failing high school and in a school with 1000+ students, only 20 people showed up if you counted faculty. I don’t know . . . it’s really a challenge that you have to be up for if you are going to teach in lower income areas.

    I know that from a cultural standpoint, some cultures really regard teachers and schools as the professionals and don’t expect to be included or don’t see why they need to be included in the process. Like how you wouldn’t try to do a doctor’s job or a plumber’s job unless you’re trained for it. I guess sometimes it’s difficult to change that mindset.

  2. I really appreciated tuning in to this post today. While working in schools, I saw many of the ways that class impacts education. In many instances, parents I worked with were able to show up to school, but because of their own discomfort in educational settings, they were less assertive about asking for what their kids needed or didn’t even know what to ask for. This happened in my own family, too.

    The nuances of class are profound and, as you eloquently stated, the influences of upbringing are always just under the surface. I have felt like an impostor in nearly every power-laden situation in my adult life, no matter how far from my tiny coal-mining hometown I get. Thank you for writing about such a tender subject with such a thoughtful lens.

  3. I do the email exchange with my oldest son’s teacher and have been doing that for the last couple of years. It works but now I have promised to show up at the school during my wfh days just to see how he is doing. I agree that 5:30pm is not a good time esp since getting off work and commuting adds an additional hour (at least). I have been invited to field trips etc but I have yet to make one because I do seriously have to work from home or the office and my “lunch” does not allow me to leave for longer periods of time.

    There was a time when I was always late for afterschool pick up because, for some reason, every parent should be able to make a 6pm pickup time no matter the weather conditions, traffic, accidents, road closings, etc. During this time, I lived in the suburbs where low income was non-existent and I was the only single working mom. I cried many times rushing to get to the school and frustrated that no one understood that I do not have the luxury of having a husband, nanny, or wings to fly over rush hour traffic.

    Thankfully, my sitter now is like a 2nd mom to my kids so she can go to some things I miss. Even after-school sports/programs are limited because I have to make sure my train ride to the city is in time for pickups and only certain days work with my schedule. A well-rounded kid in various activities/sports/clubs only seems plausible if one parent stays home full-time or has the extra funds to pay a sitter for additional hours.

  4. I will agree with that are few options for the urban and the poor but I think as long as the parents keep in contact with the teachers, I think the kids will be okay. I think when you lose total connection with the school is when the problems arise.

    I love my kids school. I have 3 kids in it. That last one is in kindergarten, the first in the 4th grade and they’ve almost all had the same teachers. While I may not be able to go to all trips and I try to do at least one a year for each of them. They know I have to work. And sometimes I talk to the other moms and sometimes I don’t. I always interact with their teachers. Because I need to know what’s going on with my kids. Also, my house is like the kick-it spot so my kids close friends, they know they can call me for a favor and I know I can call them.

  5. What times/days do you think would work better? Maybe alternating times/dates? So sometimes it’s 5:30pm weekday, other times 6am weekday, then maybe a weekend morning? Is that the kind of thing you’re thinking of?

  6. One other thing-which I kind of alluded to above- I think it’s also a mistake on the part of any school system to only look at a nuclear family as ones who “count” when it comes to parent participation and information sharing. I say this, as you know, as a someone who’s mom has been in my son’s class far more than I have and she’s gone on 2 trips already (The 3rd one is next week and she’s going). So N’s grandma is able to put in F2F time, and build connections and it keeps our whole family connected to his school experience. This is very much welcomed by N’s school (and should be by all).
    Lastly (I’m rambling)- On Friday, my son had a sad moment right before he got on the bus and I was concerned about how he was feeling in school. I didn’t want to “bother” the teachers-meaning interrupt them, so I called on my “village”- there are a bunch of parents who are friends of ours who’s kids go to N’s school. So I got in touch with 3 of them, told them what was up, and each one of them went to N’s class, looked in on him, spoke to him directly, and told the teacher that he’d had a hard morning and got back to me with a “report”. I felt so relieved that I had a community that I could rely on at that moment and I think it’s very important that schools work to foster a sense of community if it doesn’t occur naturally. OK, ramble done. 🙂

    • Interesting about the kinship network, I think you see that less outside of communities of color. In the cases of the families I work with, there is no aunt or Grandparent to pick up the slack because they too are working at a low wage paying job. It’s actually one of the factors of how my center came to be, there were literally few places for low income kids to go after school.

      Also unlike more urban areas that we are both familiar with, there is less options for say the overnight shift because places close early. If someone does work nights most likely it’s not at a full time job.

      It’s one of the areas where I think the rural poor end up with fewer options than the urban poor. That’s my own personal observation based off work both here and in Chicago.

  7. Hey, curious to know why you think 5:30 is a bad time to hold school events? Most people work (or at least have traditionally) 9-5 so 5:30-6 tends to be a time when many can actually make events, as opposed to during the hours of 9-5.

    Definitely agree with your assessment- class (and race) affect pretty much every one and every institution in some way, shape or form.

    I think location does too.

    Many schools in NYC accommodate working parents in terms of scheduling events and meetings in the evenings. If they didn’t, there would rarely be anyone at schools because the large majority of people work.

    I think generally speaking, there has also been in a shift in how schools view “parent involvement” from parents being in the classroom to any contact that parents have with school- directly (in all ways- handwritten notes, phone calls, emails, f2f) and indirectly- through their children (helping with HW, projects, fundraisers, etc).

    I am solidly middle class and the majority of folks at my son’s school are too, yet my son takes the bus to school and home (3 days a week) so I rarely go to the school building. I rely on handwritten notes to the teachers- they send home the same, and computer-generated updates, and an email groups that was set up and maintained by class parents. There are also multiple email groups where we get more general school-wide info.

    Regarding your comment about the “troublemakers”- I’ll tell you this: if kids are from a lower SES or “minority” racial group and they have any behavioral or learning issues that put them slightly outside of the norm (and in some cases, not even), they will be viewed very differently than a white child/middle class child with similar issues. Either by the teacher and/or by the school. That’s an unfortunate inheritance of our racist/classist, etc. society. This means that for the child in question, having a parent who is able to be present, visible and connected to the teacher/school has a huge impact on how things play out for the child. No question.

    • The interesting thing about living in a small place is I get to know folks who even though they are not actual friends we have a pretty good connection. A couple of Moms I know who have kids in her school also work at local restaurants and another is a barista at Starbucks. These mothers are never able to participate in the programs because their schedules are not 9-5. I can also say from my early work life 9-5 or hours roughly around that time are often not available to folks who do any type of service work.

      There are two grammar schools in our town, we live right on the dividing line but the one the girl attends has a higher number of low income/working class folks. I purposely chose that school because I knew it would be more diverse compared to the other school which has a very low number of kids who receive free/reduced income and most of the kids are very solidly middle class.

      • True (think this is also influenced by location) and the bigger issue that all working parents face is the fact that kids are only in school for 1/2 a year. That screws up all working parents, and of course, working poor parents more than anyone. The families I work with appreciate our program because we are open 8-6, which allows them to commute (these folks are working AND living in poverty).

        I think there are more options here, obviously, and to some degree there is a bit of flexbility- I hear parents talking about “changing their schedule/hours” as their child is enrolled in our program or moves on to K. They might purposefully take a job on a night shift to accommodate childcare issues.

        Also, nearly 100% of our families are POC and have a kinship network where grandma or auntie may come to school for this function or meeting. Not sure if that’s the case in suburban/rural places.

  8. I, too, think class is another layer or intersection that needs to be examined in addition to race and gender. I really appreciate your posts and blog.

Comments are closed.