Talking About Class

Fall 2012

By Mark J. Stanek

This past academic year at Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), we set out to help students and adults in our school community reflect upon and openly discuss a topic that is often suppressed in schools because it makes many people uncomfortable: socioeconomic class.
 
Why did we want to talk openly about class, and why now? As independent schools move to a greater emphasis on 21st-century skills and global education, it becomes imperative that our curriculum address one of society’s greatest challenges: the recognition of socioeconomic difference and its impact on every aspect of our lives. With an increasingly diverse student and adult population, we need to ensure inclusivity for all. At our school, the impetus for this work has come from every part of our community: teachers who struggle with school traditions that aren’t inclusive of all students and families, working parents who express dismay that their schedules don’t allow them to attend some of the school’s most important events, and board members who oversee the school’s financial well-being while worrying about the impact on families of rising tuition.
 
Given these concerns and the urgency of the work, we set out on a yearlong exploration of socioeconomic difference — within our school community and the society at large. Working with our administrative team, faculty diversity committee, board chair, and parent diversity committee chairs, we began by establishing a series of framing questions.
 
Since the topic of socioeconomic class is a challenging one for independent schools, and even taboo for some, we first invited parents, faculty, and staff to complete a survey about the class-related themes they thought we should explore — assuming that anonymous responses would help us drill down to the real issues.
 
What we learned, among other things, is that parents find it hard to talk with children about money in general, and that they struggle with how best to discuss the economic disparities between the “haves” and “have nots” in our society. Another theme that resonated loudly throughout the survey results was a desire among all adults to make sure children in our community feel comfortable in their daily lives, regardless of the socioeconomic class of their families.
 
With this in mind, we developed the first set of framing questions to guide our work with the community for the following year: How do we help students understand differences, especially in a society that links value to wealth? How do we talk to students in different developmental stages about class issues?
 
In general, parents were complimentary of the school’s multicultural philosophy, including the integration of anti-bias and social justice ideals across all aspects of school life. They appreciated teachers’ sensitivity to socioeconomic difference, citing in particular their work to downplay materialism. Parents also expressed support for the school’s efforts to make social justice a central theme in our curriculum. However, parents and faculty both expressed concern that the school operated under false assumptions about family structure and working parents. As is the case with independent school families across the country, many of our parents work outside the home. The school has fewer parent volunteers for critical fund-raising efforts and community-building activities. Additionally, parents need to juggle complicated schedules to be able to attend daytime parent conferences and other school events. While families praised our school’s commitment to inclusive tuition (no additional fees for trips and books), some expressed concern about activities throughout the year that do require additional expenditures, such as elaborate birthday parties, athletic equipment, clothing and supplies for overnight class trips, requests to participate in fund-raising activities, and holiday gifts to teachers.
 
These insightful comments then led us to form another set of questions to guide our work going forward: How do we create a community that is inclusive of many different economic circumstances? How do we talk openly about our observations of and experiences with class?
 
Although many families believe that Shady Hill’s commitments to financial aid and a vibrant after-school program are strong — currently, approximately 20 percent of families receive over $2.1 million in financial aid, including after-school support — some raised concerns about specific school practices that seemed to be based on outdated socioeconomic assumptions. Families’ examples included holding major school assemblies and parent-teacher conferences during school hours. Work commitments and financial circumstances prevent inclusion for all families. As a result of this feedback, we framed the last question to guide our work: How do we balance the financial needs of the school and the continuation of Shady Hill traditions while being sensitive to differences in socioeconomic class?
 

Talking with Parents About Class

 
With these framing questions, we sent a letter in the fall of 2011 to the entire community explaining our primary goal for the year: to participate in an open conversation about class. Additionally, we acknowledged how other aspects of diversity — race, gender, and family structure — intersect with an exploration of class. We also provided community members with resources such as articles, books, and a bibliography for children’s reading.1 Ultimately, we wanted to provide many opportunities to have a dialogue about a rich range of topics connected to class, and to identify steps to address any related tensions within our community.
 
Jennifer Ladd, a Shady Hill graduate and cofounder of Class Action, an organization dedicated to inspiring action to end classism, kicked off our opening faculty and staff meetings. Her goal was to provide a foundation for our yearlong work by defining the terms associated with this work, such as class identity, privilege, and cultural capital, and by outlining the current landscape of class in America. She asked all Shady Hill employees to reflect on their own understanding of class when they were children and how it influenced their thinking as adults.
Although the intent of the dialogue was to be inclusive, to build trust, and to open lines of communication, we realized that not everyone felt comfortable participating in such conversations. Some did not wish to reveal personal economic background and current circumstances, and others had difficulty communicating their ideas in English. In our second meeting with faculty and staff, we achieved a greater comfort level by distributing Spanish-speaking teachers evenly among breakout groups as we explored the class and power dynamics that intersect with race and ethnicity.
 
For her parent meeting, Ladd outlined the same ground rules for discussion and provided a basic explanation of the terms. Parents broke into three groups to discuss theoretical class-related situations involving students at different developmental stages. The first scenario explored a six-year-old child’s observations about different-sized homes in the context of his study of community. The second involved a 10-year-old student, after a service project at a homeless shelter, commenting negatively about the uncleanliness of residents. The third scenario was based on a teenager’s assumptions about the poor academic quality of public schools. Parents were asked to role-play further effective responses. After deconstructing these scenarios, parents commented about the difficulties of real-life conversations with their children. Parents left with several handouts and materials to help them continue their discussions at home. Many parents appreciated the opportunity to talk about class, but some felt that we only scratched the surface of class-related issues.
 

Talking with Children About Class

 
For our second parent meeting, we invited Heather Johnson, a sociology professor at Lehigh University, to share her research on how children make sense of socioeconomic status and their own class identity. Johnson, whose research focuses on the inter-generational perpetuation of race and class inequality in the contemporary United States, shared personal stories as a parent as well as the results of her research. She said her research shows that, in spite of what parents might think, children are very aware of socioeconomic differences, and believe that “hard work leads to financial success.” She explained that her test group of children also felt detached from people who had fewer economic resources than they had, describing people with fewer means as “sad.” At the conclusion of her presentation, she shared five tips2 with parents to help guide their conversations with their children:
 
• Acknowledge that this is a tough subject and that we don’t have all the answers. Be open to exploring it together.
 
• Be clear that hard work matters, but that there is often more to the story. Point out the fact that there are not always clear or easy explanations for life trajectories, and that lots of factors come into play.
 
• Be honest about one’s own privilege. Privilege equals unearned advantage. Help with private school tuition, down payments on houses, trust funds, financial help, inheritances, debt-free college/graduate education, etc. are all things that give the wealthy an unfair competitive advantage over others.
 
• Model the crossing of class boundaries. Think beyond volunteering at the soup kitchen (which, if it’s the sole source or connection with the poor, can actually reinforce detachment and disassociation). It’s better to establish friendships that cut across class lines.
 
• Talk about it! Take advantage of dinner conversations, car trips, and vacation quiet times. Break the silence about social class and social class inequality.
 

Examining School Practices and Traditions

 
As we continued to grapple with our framing questions throughout the year, the faculty, administration, and diversity committee took a deeper look at several practices that contribute to the exclusion of some members of the community. Knowing that our revered, traditional, all-school festival assemblies held during the school day contribute to exclusion, we questioned how we can continue to honor these traditions while making accommodations that aim to include all families. How can we change the venue of traditional class potlucks held in lavish homes to an environment where all families feel welcomed? How can we continue raising significant funds for the school through auctions and fairs while at the same time involving segments of our community who feel excluded by the very nature of these endeavors?
 
In the spring of 2012, teachers shared with parents the ways socioeconomic issues arise within the curriculum of our Central Subject or thematic studies, and how they could allow for a more focused discussion about class. For example, in our first and second grades, the two-year thematic study focuses on the concept of community: How do we create a safe and peaceful community? What are the basic needs of people within a greater community beyond Shady Hill? Why is it important for people to depend on one another? Students in these classes talk about who they are, where they live, and where their families come from. Children learn that although every individual is different, everyone brings something unique and valuable to the classroom community.
 
In our eighth grade Central Subject, classes study immigration and migration in the United States, and spend time examining the distribution and redistribution of wealth, capital, and resources over time. In addition, students study current events and, this past year, discussed the impetus behind the Occupy Wall Street movement and what grievances members were voicing through their protests.
 
At a board meeting in October 2011, our trustees reviewed how the language of our current financial aid policy reflects our values and how a different tuition model might alleviate the stigma of financial aid. As part of our strategic planning process and financial sustainability work, we conducted an anonymous parent survey to better grasp the socioeconomic demographics of our community. Topics included family composition, income range, and net worth. Although we expected the results to highlight the barbell effect of affordability in our community, we were surprised to learn the size of our middle-class range (annual family income under $200K). Across all income groups, the number of families receiving tuition assistance from a relative was also significant. Additionally, we learned that co-curricular and after-school programs are used uniformly across all income groups. As we conclude our strategic planning process in the winter of 2013, this data will inform our strategic decisions about the future cost of tuition and co-curricular programs.
 
I have been deeply moved by our community’s thoughtfulness and willingness to wrestle with complex issues about socioeconomic diversity, even as discussions have brought personal discomfort for some of us. When we launched this yearlong study, we imagined a successful outcome that would greatly improve inclusivity and heighten sensitivity to the many implications of difference. We have begun to take some steps towards this goal by providing practical improvements in the day-to-day life of the school: childcare provisions at evening meetings, after-school availability on early-dismissal days, fun camps during faculty professional days and school vacation weeks, and free summer camp tuition for some staff members’ children.
 
But we have only just begun. What lies ahead is an even greater commitment to social justice curricula. Class divides are one of our nation’s greatest challenges, with more than 55 million people currently living in poverty and with much of the wealth in the hands of a very small percentage of the population. We encourage other independent schools to join with us in providing graduates with the tools to talk openly about socioeconomic class with the long-term goal of combating poverty and social injustice worldwide. We are already beginning to see the effects of this work at Shady Hill in making the school a stronger community, and we look forward to the leadership our graduates will assume in the urgent work of global citizenship.

Notes

1. These included copies of a 2006 article by Pat Bassett entitled “Class, Popular Media, and Independent Schools,” www.shs.org/ftpimages/22/misc/misc_103404.pdf; and an article from the Independent Teacher e-journal, entitled “Social Class in the Lower School Classroom: Ways for Teachers to Help,” www.independentteacher.org/vol5/5.1-7.html, which included an extensive annotated bibliography of children’s books about social class differences.
 
2. From The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, Heather Beth Johnson, Routledge 2006.
Author
Mark J. Stanek

Mark J. Stanek is head of school at Shady Hill School (Massachusetts).