Straddling Class Borders

Renny Christopher once wrote that class is essentially invisible until we stand at the very point of crossing class borders.

I thought of this as I read this account of class as lived experience, from a young person home on spring break.

I can’t think of anything since Sennet and Cobb’s The Hidden Injuries of Class that has sought to capture the experiences of the parents of the upwardly-mobile, but it would seem that there are indeed stories to be told, even when such stories are lived as tales of personal pain and resentment.

Punishing Parents

From Texas comes this story about a legislator who wants to charge parents who skip parent teacher conferences with a misdemeanor, punishable with fines of up to $500. This strikes me as yet another example of the public propensity to sanction long-outdated school practices while blaming parents (and let’s be clear — this is aimed at poor and working-class parents) for not complying with what’s expected of them.

It doesn’t seem that this proposal will get anywhere, but the story did make me think of other fines we could impose in the interest of developing school practice that reflect the realities of contemporary lives, and especially, that revise ways that schools work with poor and working class families:

So, let’s fine:

  • Employers who don’t routinely let parents have time off — or at least flex time — to go to conferences or to school events. Most kids live in homes in which any and all adults are working. A number of years ago, I read of mills in North Carolina that had worked with the schools to give parents a few hours a month for school-related activities (childless workers could use this time to volunteer in schools). The mills understood that this was in their interest, as they’d assumed that their next generation of workers would come to them with a solid education . (The mills are all closed now and their work outsourced, but that’s another story).
  • Employers who won’t provide meeting space so that the conferences could happen at the workplace. Not all parents have free access to reliable transportation.
  • School districts that won’t fund teacher time for substantive, ongoing communication, because no one really believes that the twenty-minutes-twice-a-year ritual is adequate for any substantive conversation. Teachers need time for regular phone calls, for more frequent meetings, for time to create explanatory materials when homework goes beyond drill and practice, for analyzing and compiling student work so that they can talk with parents about something other than summative grades.
  • School districts that won’t fund time for teachers to do home visits before the school year begins.
  • School districts that don’t provide “family center” space for resources, informal meetings, parent classes, a symbolic welcoming space in the school.
  • Federal policy makers that proclaim parents as partners but don’t provide the resources for communication, meeting, and the inevitable conflict resolution.

Caring for Kids Across Class Boundaries

In my last post, I wrote about the limitations of the ideal of the “heroic” teacher whose deep care will enable poor and working class students to engage in school in profoundly different ways.

That same afternoon, I was reading Stephanie Jones’ terrific book Girls, Social Class, and Literacy. She writes of the complicated relationships between children, their mothers, and teachers when mothers do not have access to the cultural, economic, or social capital to live up to the social construction of “ideal mother”. When poor and working class mothers have long been subject to the judgments of teachers, medical professionals, social workers, neighbors, or Child Protective Services, they have good reason to be wary of middle-class teachers who try to insinuate themselves into into the lives of their children.

Jones write that as a teacher, she had to come to understand that “students who walk into classrooms do not possess autonomy to build relationships and attachments with any concrete other. … The relationships educators build with children may continue to position them in tension-filled spaces between home and school if we don’t realize the necessity of building genuine relationships with caregivers as well”.

We seem to have come somewhat full circle, then. Loving children into learning can never be enough for poor and working-class kids. Yet, when teachers have too much to do in too little time, it will take an element of quiet heroism to also invest in the risky business of initiating relationships with wary parents across class boundaries.