The Influence of Affluence

A second-grade teacher recently shared with me this story: “One morning one of my students came up and asked, ‘Want to know how I know you’re poor? Because you wear the same set of shoes every day. What’s it like to be poor?’”

Here we all take a deep breath, yes? In this moment, as we blink at this child and scan within for how we will respond, we may even hear our heart beating. We’re unsure what to do. How do we listen without judgment and respond with curiosity when someone’s attempt to make sense of the world—indeed, to connect—seems insensitive and belittling? How do we have a conversation when our own hot buttons are pushed?

In our society, which bears one of the most unequal income distributions in the developed world, the impact of such inequities has never been more palpable and so present in conversations both political and personal. In independent schools, class differences are writ particularly large, yet we rarely talk about how this reality shapes school culture and our relationships with students.

Wealth and privilege have become the “elephant in the room,” causing stress and distress as we conspire not to acknowledge or talk about it. This is a difficult conversation—for teachers who come from wealth and for those who do not. And all of this is complicated by a school’s financial need for full-paying families as well as the very real need of a healthy community that reflects the diversity of race and economic background.

Wealth breeds a variety of complicated feelings and attitudes. Some wealthy parents bring a particular set of expectations and influences to the school, further complicating the faculty relationship with their child. Faculty and students at independent schools are having a cross-cultural experience—and they have the opportunity to ignore or to leverage the learning that is there to be had.

Surrounded by Privilege

Teaching in an independent school can be an exhilarating experience, providing freedom to teach creatively and to work with talented, motivated students. Working with extraordinarily privileged students, however, can be challenging for teachers with and without wealthy backgrounds.

“This is harder to talk about than sex,” exclaimed a teacher during a lunchtime “affinity table” discussion about teaching wealthy students at a Stanley King Counseling Institute last year. After an embarrassed silence, followed by nods of agreement, another teacher says, “OK, I’ll fess up: Wealthy kids with their privilege sometimes just make me angry. I feel guilty about that.”

From across the table, another teacher adds, “I get an email from a father telling me to call his personal assistant to set up an appointment time for a meeting about his child.” She continues, “It’s hard when kids or parents treat me as if I’m their personal assistant.”

Another teacher, who is the first person in her family to go to college, has a master’s degree, and has many years of experience teaching in an independent school, adds that all “this teacher-as-personal-assistant stuff reminds me of my low status growing up. I worked hard to get where I am, but teaching in an independent school sometimes feels like working hard doesn’t matter.”

Making the relational terrain even more fraught, boundaries between parents and teachers can become hazy, making the relationship feel inequitable and, sometimes, demeaning. Although gift policies in schools are now common, ambiguities and possibilities for misunderstanding often arise. Wealthy parents may subtly undermine teachers’ authority and objectivity by offering them expensive gifts unavailable to the teacher otherwise (the use of the family’s house in Bermuda, for example), expecting a quid pro quo. Teachers may receive invasive calls and texts, wanting special treatment, expecting accommodations in return for gifts or as acknowledgment of the family’s power. Sometimes nothing need be said or promised for boundaries—and the ethics they protect—to start to wobble.

At the other end of the spectrum, teachers who themselves come from wealth understand that things are not always as good as they appear for students of privilege. Their ability to empathize, however, can be constricted by mixed feelings about their own class status and upbringing. They may feel shame about their privilege or about evoking the envy of their colleagues, which may then distance them from their school community.

These teachers understand “the code” that is woven into their experience of class and wealth: a kind of emotional reserve and distance, a specialness, and the certainty of entitlement. One teacher who grew up wealthy observed that, “I was brought up to portray the image of perfection outwardly through good grades, nice clothes, while never addressing how it felt to be living with a father who traveled most of the year, and a mother whose priority was helping my father achieve his dreams.” Now, as a teacher of students of wealth, she struggles with the pain of betraying her childhood code of specialness: “To establish a relationship of a more intimate nature with such a student would be to betray the loveliness of all that with the shared knowledge that our lives are not as good as the image we give off. We have learned to make it all
look good.” 

Surely we can recognize the deep loneliness in this.

How Wealth Creates Social-Emotional Vulnerability

At first blush, there seems to be a gap between the concerns of wealthy students and the lived experience of many of their teachers. However, it can be helpful to understand the deeper vulnerabilities of children of wealth.

“These are such first-world problems!” another teacher at the aforementioned affinity table discussion suggested. “The other day—I couldn’t believe it—I had a kid crying about having to share her Mercedes convertible with her sister.”

“You bet,” another teacher at the table chimed in. “I had to listen to a student complaining because his family was so busy with work they had to cancel a trip on their yacht to the Galapagos Islands.”

One teacher, who herself comes from wealth, later wrote me in an email that, “The ‘first-world problems’ issue so often shows up where teachers have trouble connecting with and empathizing with a child of privilege. Often this reaction manifests itself subtly in teachers who act cool about it but have a second dialogue of judgment going on in their heads, and I think kids can tell. Vulnerable kids are most wary of judgment and will snap the lid shut quickly if they feel judged, and then the teacher loses all hope of getting the kid to widen her perspective or learn coping skills.”

Children who come from wealth—vulnerable? In need of learning coping skills? Yes, and often that “second dialogue of judgment” in our heads makes it difficult for us to see how fraught the lives of wealthy children can be. We incorrectly presume that great material wealth brings well-being, and it can feel like a stretch to consider the emotional and social vulnerability of the affluent. Yet, affluence brings its own stress, isolating children and distorting the social ties that make for healthy development.

There is increasing evidence that children from affluent backgrounds are vulnerable to high levels of emotional and social distress. This seems to result from two factors: excessive pressure to achieve and emotional and physical isolation from parents. The emphasis on material success can compromise other factors essential for psychological well-being, such as close interpersonal relationships. In wealthy families, material resources can compromise supportive networks, since parents may buy services such as child care or tutoring rather than sharing those responsibilities with the extended family or community. For many independent school students, there are few adults in whom they can confide.

As one independent school teacher observed during a workshop at his school last year, “Some of the kids in my class have no caretakers in their life who are not paid to attend to them.” Experiences of warmth and caring, the pleasures of free play, and the opportunities to evolve a sense of self that is not contingent on monetary exchange and what you can achieve—such experiences are limited in the lives of many wealthy children. A teacher who has worked for years with the children of the wealthy went so far as to suggest that a comparison to the plight of foster children would not be too far off the mark, given how many children from both backgrounds wind up essentially raising themselves.

Teachers with experience in less-privileged classrooms understand the importance of being upfront about life’s realities. When you teach in a community where there are direct threats to children’s safety, you have to help them learn how to be resilient. You talk about the challenges they will face; you coach them through difficult situations. You give them “the talk.”

Similarly, some children of wealth may be painfully unaware and unprepared for what they will face as they live their lives. In this case, the “wealth bubble” can leave a student believing that there are no meaningful problems out there, or at least none that their wealth or family influence can’t manage. When they confront the ordinary difficulties of making a relationship work, dealing with the inevitable failures and challenges of life, they often have not built up sufficient resilience to cope.

While we need to have conversations about class with all students, perhaps, too, we need a version of “the talk” with students of wealth, one that comes from a teacher whom the student admires and trusts. The talk would focus on the bubble that wealth creates and the social-emotional challenges that they face, with particular attention to the role of empathy and development of their own resilience when facing challenges to their self-esteem. The talk should not be shaming as much as informative and empathetic.

When Students Initiate the Talk

I’ll often ask teachers if the topic of wealth and class has been openly discussed in their schools. Skeptical eye rolls usually follow, as if to say, “Are you kidding?” At a recent conference, though, a teacher told me that the discussion did happen in her school—and it was driven by the students.

At the Lick-Wilmerding High School (CA), a group of juniors and seniors formed a school organization called VOICE, whose aim, in their words, was “to create a safe space … to promote dialogue between different experiences, viewpoints, and affinity groups. Through these discussions, we hope to identify different areas of conflict within the school community and work together to create tools to help combat against it.” One area of focus is socioeconomic status, which the students say is a commonly avoided and uncomfortable topic throughout the school community.

When I interviewed the four student organizers of VOICE, they recalled experiencing firsthand—and hearing from other students about—a number of hidden, class-related injuries in the course of everyday life at the school: Scholarship students who receive tickets to school dances on a sliding scale would hear other students exclaim, “You’re so lucky; you get to pay less to go to the dances;” in the cafeteria, main entrees—but not desserts—are included in tuition, and they’d listen to more privileged students casually declare that “I’m on my third cookie already today,” when they rarely had the money for one; at student-sponsored fundraisers they felt judged as selfish and uncommitted when they didn’t donate because that meant taking money away from their families. These students experienced the community as subtly segregated by class in terms of who hangs out together, what gets talked about in casual conversation (what do you say after vacation when your friends talk about their trips to exotic locations?) and how people dress—often to downplay class identifiers (students from wealth trying to “dress down” so as not to stand out and working-class students trying to “dress up” to fit in). Somehow, the elephant remains in the room, dressed however it may be, and students are acutely aware of which students are wealthy and which are not.

The student organizers of VOICE asked the administration to create an all-school assembly with a panel of students and faculty willing to talk in a very personal way about their own socioeconomic status and how they experienced it at the school. The group’s hope was to “kickstart the conversation about class.” The school administration and VOICE’s faculty advisor were very supportive of this effort, and so many students volunteered for the panel that the organizers had to make some tough decisions about who to include. Ultimately,
they chose from the volunteer pool “people who haven’t shared much with the community and are of diverse backgrounds.”

Three students and three teachers participated in the panel: a lower-middle-class female student of color, a middle-class female student of color (Asian heritage), and a white male student from a local family of significant wealth. The three teachers consisted of a middle-class white male teacher, a male teacher of color of middle-class background, and a white female teacher who self-identified as lower-middle class. The panel addressed the following questions:

  • Before you came to Lick, how did you perceive your socioeconomic status? How and in what ways has being at Lick changed this perception?
  • How do you think people at Lick perceive your socioeconomic status and why?
  • Can you describe a time at Lick when your socioeconomic status felt salient or tangible to you?
  • Have you ever changed your behaviors based on the way you perceived the socioeconomic class of the people you were around? How so?
  • What does recognizing the diversity of socioeconomic status at Lick really look like to you?
  • What advice do you have for people when it comes to engaging the topic of socioeconomic status?

What stood out for many students at the assembly were the comments by the student of wealth and the remarks by the faculty member who lived a life “from paycheck to paycheck.”

The student—son of investment bankers—talked directly and openly about his experience of wealth and the dissonance it caused him within the school community. At home he often heard references to large sums of money being talked about in an impersonal manner, then he came to school and listened to his classmates talking in very personal terms about the economic and social challenges in their lives. He challenged his fellow economically advantaged peers to think more about the process of becoming aware of what that difference means in their lives.

The faculty member—a divorced, single mom—described herself as living “precariously” economically, but having made that choice by virtue of the decision to end her marriage. “I have eight dollars in my checking account right now,” she said, and told the audience that when her car broke down recently she didn’t have the deposit necessary to rent a car, so wound up taking a bus across town after school to pick up her daughter from school. To make ends meet she rents out the spare bedroom in her house through Airbnb. In sharing her story, the teacher wanted to underscore resilience rather than passivity when it comes to dealing with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Reflecting back on the panel, the teacher felt a great sense of liberation and release in being so open about her life circumstances instead of trying to hide them. “So many people came up to me—kids and faculty—to thank me for my candor. It was as if they were wrestling with it, too, but it was a taboo topic for them to talk about.”

The outcome of the panel? It’s clearly a work in progress. “It was amazing how many people bolted for lunch right after the panel rather than stay for discussion,” says one of the student organizers. “It’s uncomfortable to come face-to-face with questions about your core identity.”

Yet the panel did its job. Several teachers allotted time in their classes to discuss what everyone had heard, and at least one teacher devoted an entire class to reactions that came up from the students. And now the VOICE students and their allies are committed to keeping the conversation alive.

Why Teachers Matter

As the Lick-Wilmerding panel indicates, the independent school environment is a special opportunity for students—and faculty—to step outside their bubble of class. Or at least to realize that there is such a bubble.

For students of privilege, a trustworthy relationship with a teacher may be one of the first opportunities they have to sort out who they really are and what they feel about the things that matter in their lives. The vulnerability and isolation that a child of wealth may be experiencing represents an opportunity for teachers, regardless of their own background, to build real relationships with students. A caring teacher may be the first person to respond in a way that helps children come to experience themselves as complex people, to acknowledge the inner experience of their lives. This, too, builds resilience and deepens social and emotional intelligence—not to mention empathy for both people in the conversation.

Consider the student who complained about his family’s cancelled Galapagos trip. It turns out that this family rarely spent time together. The trip was an opportunity for the student to spend time with his father. In his complaint, what he was really saying—in a more coded way—was, “I miss my father.” It can be an easy message to miss. But it’s important for a teacher to acknowledge the student’s disappointment and loss, validating these understandable human feelings for the student.

When the second-grader pointed at her teacher’s shoes, she was asking a question about how the world works: What is it like to be poor? In one sense she was looking outside her bubble and expressing her curiosity. So when asked, the teacher replied: “I wear these shoes because I like them. However, let’s talk about poverty and what that’s like…”

There are many such teachable moments if we can pay attention to our own reactivity and assumptions about class and wealth. No matter how far apart a student’s daily life may be from those who live in poverty, empathy itself gives us a sense of belonging to the human family; this sense of belonging is itself healing.

Whether we come from wealth or not, whether we live in a bubble of privilege or not, the complexities of wealth and class shape our experiences as members of a school community. We are all struggling to have conversations about these realities. If we can avoid easy assumptions and gossip that contributes to stereotypes about wealthy students as well as those who do not come from wealth, we may be able to listen with an attitude of curiosity, respect, and empathy. We may notice their bids for connection and perhaps start a conversation that helps them—and us—broaden our perspectives on what it means to be a human being living with others in our complicated, demanding world.

Author
Sam Osherson

Sam Osherson is on the faculty at the Stanley H. King Counseling Institute for Independent Secondary Schools (http://shkingcounseling.org/), which teaches listening skills to teachers, advisors, administrators, and other school personnel. He’s also a practicing psychotherapist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an emeritus professor of psychology at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. He has authored several books and articles and speaks often about the hidden costs of wealth.