Students from all backgrounds enjoy recess!
Before I left for Argentina, the term "Private School" had a certain connotation for me. It meant a large, extravagant school, with wealthy children in matching uniforms. So when I got my assignment, teaching first and second grade at a private school in Buenos Aires, I thought I knew what to expect. Like most cross-cultural expectations though, I was mistaken. The children wore uniforms, but the similarity stopped there. This private school was neither large nor extravagant, and the children came from significantly different backgrounds.
In most elementary schools across the globe, you will come across children who have dramatically different economic backgrounds. Difficult situations may arise from this, such as children feeling excluded or embarrassed by their means. As a teacher, it is important to take certain measures to ensure this happens as little as possible.
Make every child feel special
One of the first indications of this issue in my classroom came on the day of a field trip to the Buenos Aires Zoo. When I arrived at school for the field trip, I was told to stay back with two students who could not afford to join the group. I didn't have to ask which two, as the students were sobbing uncontrollably. I felt so awful that I offered to pay for the students but was informed that would be favoritism and was against school policy. As the rest of the class left for their zoo adventure, I was left to console these two students and entertain them for the day.
Lena took her students to the Buenos Aires Zoo
Luckily, it was near Halloween, a holiday that Argentine children do not generally celebrate. We spent the day learning all about Halloween, and even found costumes for the children to dress in and some candy to eat. When the rest of the class came back from the zoo telling stories of all the animals they saw, these two children also had something exciting to talk about. The children did not feel excluded by missing the zoo; they felt special that they were the only two who knew about Halloween and got to teach the rest of the class.
Make sure each child is proud of their background
Even as young as first and second grade, bullying does exist. In my classroom I found much of the bullying to be directed at the children of poorer families. The outcome of this was very upsetting; many of the children acted embarrassed by their parents or their neighborhoods.
We came up with a version of "show and tell" for the classroom, where each child had to bring something from their family or culture to share with the class. It could be anything from a meal their mom loved to cook, to an item containing family history or even a family member. Even the children who had been bullied were enthusiastic about sharing a little part of their family with the class, and all of the students gained a new understanding of each other's backgrounds. Each child felt proud of their unique families and where they came from.
Always be aware of your students' different backgrounds
Be careful giving charity
Helping those less fortunate is a natural human instinct, or at least it should be, but sometimes that help isn't well received. In my classroom in Argentina, one student had head lice. Unlike in the U.S., she wasn't expected to leave school (the principal said this would be discrimination.) The only thing asked was that she used a special shampoo to cure the lice faster. After a few weeks with no change, a teacher commented to the student's mother that the shampoo wasn't working. The mother informed her that she wasn't using the shampoo, because the family couldn't afford it. Without thinking twice, the teacher offered to buy the shampoo for the girl, and the mother started screaming at her that they didn't need any handouts.
While the teacher was just trying to help, the woman felt that the teacher was looking down on her and treating her like a charity case. Of course, it is always good to be generous and offer what you can to those less fortunate, but it is important to get a feel for the individuals involved beforehand so no one feels disrespected. The woman felt humiliated, but had the situation been approached in a more delicate way she may have reacted differently.
It can be very challenging teaching students who come from different economic backgrounds, and trying to create a united classroom with students who come from unique backgrounds. The most any teacher can do is make each child feel equal and important.