Even when you're trying to talk about class and money with your students on an abstract level, it can get personal.

Real personal.

Whether you're reading an author like Flannery O'Connor and someone makes a jab at "white trash," or you're talking about what students had for lunch and you get that nasty feeling that some of your kids didn't have any because they couldn't afford it, economic concerns aren't just for grownups.

Students' financial situation at home and their perspective on economic status in general—their own, their classmates', or that of the characters in the books you're reading—can lead to some tense conversations. So having a basic handle on why this is an issue and how you can sensitively discuss it in the classroom is a good rule of thumb for any teacher.

Because class isn't not an issue anywhere—even if it doesn't get talked about.

A Class in Class

SES—or socioeconomic status—has to do with income, education, occupation, neighborhood, and political clout, and questions about whether families can meet financial responsibilities, the condition of their home and neighborhood, and the job stability and prestige have to do with how it is determined. You can read a lot more about SES and what it means for education in this Education.com article.

The main issue is that low SES can interfere with children's learning, and with their future opportunities. This can be due to the following:

  • Health problems due to lack of care or resources
  • Lower parental involvement
  • Higher instances of violence, neglect at home, and juvenile delinquency
  • Lower motivation to perform well in school

The U.S. sees particularly high instances of race indexing with low SES, so that many black and Hispanic students (in particular) face an ongoing "cycle of poverty". As in, these children are poor, so they don't perform well in school, so they get low-paying jobs and stay poor, and their children are poor, too.

Exactly what factors must be addressed to keep this cycle from turning is a central part of the debate about economic status and education

And we hate to break it to you, but we don't have the answer.

What we can answer (or at least take a stab at answering) is how not to fall into the trap of being blind to class issues, and how to start a conversation with your students about how to be aware of SES in course material and in their own lives.

Stereotypes, Assumptions, Prejudice, and Other Ugly Words

The big, giant, indisputable rule #1 for anything related to diversity—or, uh, humans in general—is don't make assumptions about individuals based on a group you think they might belong to. Ever.

If you're wrong, you could insult that individual and lead to a misunderstanding or even an argument.

If you're right, you could insult that individual and lead to a misunderstanding or even an argument.

Yep. Just because you're right, doesn't mean it's not offensive.

We should also point out that even if your goal is to learn as much as possible about every group you come across, you still don't want to get stuck in the treacherous land of stereotype. Instead, get to know your students based on their unique interests, strengths, and foibles, and move forward based on those characteristics—not characteristics you'd associate with any class or group as a whole.

There are plenty of ways that you can recognize class differences—such as language, academic readiness, dress, and the types of examples students use. Of course, you should still try not to assume anything based on what look like reasonable differences in SES, but hey, it can still be handy to know what to look for so you can keep your sensitivity level on the high end at all times.

Talking Class With Your Class

Maybe it's a conversation you want to have explicitly—if you're teaching a history or civics class, for example, and it fits in with the subject matter. Or alternately, if it's become a conflict in your classroom and your students need some pointers in how to be sensitive.

For starters, here are some ways to sharpen your awareness of class and make sure that you're being as sensitive a teacher as teachers can be:

  • Be aware of your own background and identity (cultural, racial, socioeconomic) and think about whether your examples, explanation method, or other features of how you teach might be impacted by things you take for granted.
  • Try to build bonds with your students—even (especially) the ones who seem very different, or as if they're struggling.
  • Find ways to make learning tasks meaningful and relevant. Offer reasons this could be important to your students' lives, as well as help when they're struggling.
  • Incorporate problems, examples, readings, and information that encompass a range of class backgrounds and perspectives.
  • Shake things up (a good idea in any classroom). That means variety in types of assignments and activities, and plenty of group work to get students of different backgrounds, perspectives, and abilities to learn from each other. That's right, from each other.
  • Show respect for students of all backgrounds, and demonstrate acceptance when a comment or action gets a negative response.
  • Acknowledge class differences—how better to make it not a problem than to recognize how it can be a problem? Plus, build in opportunities to make that an opportunity for conversation. How? Coming right up.

Good ideas, huh? For more where those came from (and the sources for a few of these) check out:

  • This chapter summary about diverse teaching strategies. Scroll down to the "Embracing Diversity" section and the list of teaching approaches for diverse student populations.
  • This Tolerance.org article about how to interrogate class as a problem in our schools.

And we also promised some pointers on how to have an explicit convo about class in your class. The first step is framing that conversation in a way that both stresses the importance of the issue, and that demonstrates your awareness that it might not be comfortable for everyone. Modeling awareness and sensitivity with your own behavior will help your students get a better handle on how to talk about class and other issues of diversity and marginalization.

Next, develop the set of questions you want to ask to get your students involved. Maybe you start by brainstorming some assumptions, or you make things specific by focusing on poverty and the government, or the cycle of poverty, or how race fits in. Tolerance.org offers a series of lessons based on "Issues of Poverty" that can help guide you through one or several discussions that are bound to get your students thinking about the system of inequality—and hopefully, thinking about how to change some of those inequalities.

The goal is for students who haven't thought too hard about poverty to gain compassion for their fellow students—and for the students of lower SES to feel that they're being recognized, even if they can't be fully understood.

What Can You Do?

Unless you quit your teaching job and spend your days and nights lobbying Congress, the Senate, and any other state or federal lawmakers who have anything to say about education in our great country, there's probably not a ton you can do on a grand scale.

But wait!

There's so much you can do on a smaller scale—and more often than not, that's even more important in the big scheme of things. Both because helping out a few individuals can be super meaningful, and because showing that you're doing what you can in your own school and your own classroom can start making a shift that can end up moving mountains.

Well, we can hope.

To inspire you on your mountain-moving way, here's a quotation from the book Educating Everybody's Children: Diverse Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners:

"That minority and low-income children often perform poorly on tests is well known. But the fact that they do so because we systematically expect less from them is not."

Get it? So, our main tip for you: set high expectations for your students, no matter what sort of background they have.

And if they don't reach those high expectations right away? Well, that's where part two comes in: tell your class that they can all achieve great results, and work with them to do so. Even if some of your kids who don't get a lot of help at home may struggle to get a 70%, while others are busting out a 90% while barely breaking a sweat, support them in that, too.

It's not about comparisons or everyone reaching the same result; it's about each student reaching his or her highest potential. And by showing that you believe in them, working with them to power forward to that potential, and offering encouragement and praise at whatever level they do reach, you'll be a teaching superstar.

Even if you can't change the system, there's a lot you can do to counter assumptions, fire up your students' motivation, and hopefully, see a few jump out of the cycle. It may seem like a long shot, but it starts with those tiny steps before that wheel can stop a-turnin'.