Building bridges across class differences at the personal and interpersonal levels: Part 1

You can create more inclusive and equitable classrooms for students living in poverty by reflecting on change at four levels.

Young people and their families who live in poverty face many barriers to academic and school success. This is due, in part, to limited opportunities that are available to these students and the reality that most schools and classrooms have been designed to meet the needs of middle class and affluent students. Educators who want to make a difference can draw from the experiences of several scholars, teachers and writers who provide ways to create classrooms that are more respectful, accessible and equitable for all students—including those who are living in limited resource families and communities. 

Drawing from the work of Richard Milner, Donna Beegle and Michigan State University Extension, here are reflection questions focused at the personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels that can help educators and others working in community settings build important bridges across class differences: 

Personal: Beliefs, attitudes, values

  • What assumptions, stereotypes and beliefs might I hold about people who are poor and working class? Are my feelings different for white students than for students of color?
  • Do I (consciously or unconsciously) see people as lazy, dirty or “less than” if they are poor?
  • Do I tend to blame people for their economic circumstances? Am I more judgmental if they are students/adults of color?
  • Do I believe that people “need me” (savior mentality) and my efforts or they won’t be “okay”?
  • Do I see the strengths, struggles, wisdom, assets and resiliency of those who are living within difficult economic conditions?
  • Do I see students and families with limited resources as much a part of our school and community as those who are middle class or affluent—or do I tend to see them as outsiders (consciously or unconsciously)?
  • How do my feelings about people who are poor differ if the person is also female, a person of color, a person with a disability or another difference?
  • Am I engaging in self-reflection and self-examination about my own strengths, weaknesses, privileges and other issues related to class and other differences? How am I encouraging students to do the same?
  • Do I understand that my job is to be firm as well as fair in order to create high expectations for all students? How do I balance the notion of “firm and fair” in my work?
  • Do I see students as whole human beings rather than parts of their identities? Do I see students as individuals—each with different needs that must be met? 

Interpersonal: Actions, language, behaviors

  • Do I have relationships with children, youth and families in my community who come from limited resource backgrounds? Are they also racially diverse? What has worked for me—and what has not—in my efforts to build those relationships?
  • What am I willing to do to build trust and sustain relationships? Am I willing to listen to students and families about their realities and challenges—as well as their dreams, interests and needs related to education and life goals?
  • Do I make my expectations explicit and not assume that students understand rules and expectations—while also making power imbalances and structures (such as adultism, racism, sexism, classism) visible to students?
  • Do I use accessible and relevant language with students and families?
  • Am I learning and incorporating trauma-informed practices into my relationships and teaching? Do I approach difficult situations with care, compassion and empathy?
  • Do I step in and interrupt bullying, harassment and other mean-spirited behaviors that are directed at kids who are poor or who are members of another marginalized group?
  • Do I try to fit everyone into one standard? How willing am I to adapt, change and update curriculum, content and processes in order to be relevant to students from low-income families? What am I willing to do to create more opportunities for them?
  • Do I label youth as “at-risk,” “underprivileged,” “disadvantaged” or “underclass” or do I find ways to talk about students who are in high risk situations in respectful and equitable ways?
  • Am I willing to learn more about the intersections and connections between issues of class, race and gender? How am I working across these differences for greater inclusion/equity for all? 

While reflection at the personal and interpersonal levels are important, it’s also essential that building bridges across class differences includes reflection at the institutional and cultural levels as well. 

These reflection questions can help you begin to see issues to be addressed and the changes needed in order to create classrooms and schools that are more respectful, inclusive and equitable for all students. You can learn more about these issues by reading Beegle’s book titled See Poverty…Be the Difference or Milner’s book titled Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms. 

To learn more about creating welcoming and inclusive environments, visit Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and settings that address bullying, bias and harassment. 

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