Care and Feeding

How Can I Help the Poor Kids in My Son’s Class?

And what do teachers do about economic disparity in the classroom?

Teacher and student.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from around the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

My son attends an economically diverse school where more than half of students receive free or reduced lunch. During the book fair, one of his friends told him that he was sad because he would never get a book (we bought one for my son). We are comfortable and, while we won’t go crazy at the book fair, one book will not cause undue hardship. My son wanted to buy his friend a book, but I don’t know if that’s the best solution. When I was growing up, I was that kid never able to get things at the book fair, so I know how that feels. How do teachers handle disparity in incomes between students—both talking about it honestly, and helping to remedy it? Are there things parents can or should do to directly help our children’s classmates without insulting their families?

—Fortunate Son

Dear FS,

There are definitely things teachers do to support our low-income students. School personnel are usually well-attuned to which kids need help having their needs met, and it is not uncommon for teachers to keep snacks and supplies stashed in their classrooms for that specific purpose. Schools gather spare clothing, winter gear, and sneakers to distribute when needed; I even once worked in a school that maintained a washing machine and dryer for students who couldn’t otherwise do laundry. There are things you can do as a parent, too. In this specific situation, you could organize a gently used book drive and giveaway (or a fundraiser) so that all students leave the book fair with a newly chosen book, regardless of their ability to purchase one.

More broadly, you can join the PTA and use that platform to advocate for your school to be inclusive of students of all economic backgrounds. Are there activities or extracurriculars that require and assume a certain financial status to access? Channel money there to subsidize those costs: Create scholarships for major field trips, fund the transportation, buy the extraneous gear and accessories and equipment. Also, encourage practices that will allow all families to participate in the school community, rather than perpetually nudging some to the margins. Offer child care at school events, provide a meal, host functions at hours tailored to schedules other than a 9-to-5 business day.

All that being said, I will admit that I’m kinda flummoxed by the very premise here. Is there anything that teachers and schools aren’t expected to do? Anything that’s not in our purview? I can keep a drawer full of protein bars in my desk, but the income disparities in my classroom are just a microcosm of the sprawling societal class divide that we’re all facing—and that, I cannot fix in the 42-minute periods I spend with my students daily (while also, you know, teaching them English). So really, one of the most impactive things we can all do is try to effect systemic change. Do your research; seek out and amplify the voices of low-income community members and families expressing what they need; donate, support, and vote accordingly. See ya at the polls!

—Ms. Bauer

My eighth-grader was right on the border between “Math 8” and algebra, and her seventh-grade math teacher suggested going for algebra. And so far she’s definitely battling in that class! Is it better to get a lower grade in an above-grade-level gifted class, or get a higher grade in an at-grade-level regular class? How do teachers (and parents) tell the difference between “struggling” and “being challenged”?

—Over the Borderline

Dear OtB,

In general, I’d say it’s better to be challenged … but it’s going to depend on your kid. How does she handle pressure? How’s her self-esteem? Does she have good study habits? Does she believe she’s pretty good at math in general? If not, does she think it’s possible to improve even if she lacks natural talent for it?

Listen, a parent or teacher who puts an anxious or lazy kid in a class beyond her capabilities might be asking for a problem. However, if she has a pretty solid sense of self and a decent work ethic, this experience could prove to be a learning opportunity, and not just for math. I’d argue that, in the grand scheme, more important than algebra is resourcefulness. Could you take this opportunity to help her learn that? Having trouble in class? Well, that’s when you: do extra research, ask the teacher for help, seek out a peer tutor. These skills will help her through the class but also serve her in every area of her life.

In sum, the difference between “struggling” and “being challenged” is often the kid’s attitude. And that is malleable. Do what you can to help her develop a good one.

—Ms. Scott

How important is the student’s handwriting/presentation of work? My 10-year-old daughter’s handwriting is pretty atrocious (despite my best efforts to help her with this for the past five years!) and, while the content of her writing is great, the actual presentation of her handwritten work is just pretty miserable. How important is this to teachers, generally? Now that schools are moving toward more and more typewritten work, does a child’s handwriting even matter? If it does matter (and I think it should!), how can a parent help with this?

—Y Kant Tori Write

Dear Tori,

Can her teachers read her handwriting? Can she read her own handwriting? Can she write without significant frustration or discomfort? If the answer to each question is “yes,” she may not be motivated to improve handwriting that isn’t causing her problems. Over the years, I’ve become adept at reading “pretty miserable” handwriting—it’s not necessarily a reflection of effort or skill when the content is good. Some people just have ugly handwriting. My students write every day in class, but most polished, revised writing is typed. In fact, my district is shifting to electronic submission for many assignments, bypassing paper altogether. I admit I may be biased—I joke with my students that the reason I’m not a kindergarten teacher is my sloppy penmanship. But if I made a list of the top five issues discussed in teacher meetings and professional development, handwriting wouldn’t be on it.

However, “atrocious handwriting” can be a symptom of dysgraphia. If this description sounds like your daughter, talk to the school counselor about having her assessed because dysgraphia can hinder academic success. Dysgraphic students may qualify for special education or 504 services.

Your letter is concerned with presentation, so she may not have a disability. But sometimes poor handwriting interferes with learning for students who are not dysgraphic. The website Understood has useful tips and tools—but you’ve been trying to help her for five years, so I’m guessing you’ve mined the internet. Have you considered consulting an occupational therapist? There may be something physical, such as her grip or posture, that a therapist could help her adjust.

—Ms. Holbrook

It’s pretty common for teachers to tell a child that he needs to “look me in the eye” so they know the child is paying attention. For a child with autism spectrum disorder, like my son, this can be uncomfortable or even traumatic. However, I know for other children, if you aren’t looking them straight in the eye, they definitely aren’t listening. How hard is it for teachers to vary their approaches for kids of differing abilities? Do teachers get frustrated or resentful when they have to do this?

—Avoiding Your Gaze

Dear AYG,

When it comes to teachers varying their approaches, there are two pieces. One is the actual difficulty of the accommodation, and the other is the personal baggage around teaching. Actually accommodating or modifying work for a student with differing abilities isn’t usually hard. Sometimes it takes extra legwork early on, but it rarely requires significant resources or time to make those small but meaningful changes you’re talking about. For example, instead of saying “Look at me,” there are lots of ways teachers can ask kids to show they’re paying attention—”Touch your head if you know what the next activity is” or even just “Clap your hands if you’re listening” are really easy ones—and once a teacher decides to make that the standard, it very quickly becomes habit.

The personal baggage aspect, the decision to make those changes, is much harder. It requires teachers to identify their agendas and beliefs about how children “should” be, and to separate those from how they present instruction. That unlearning can be difficult! Whether it evokes resentment or frustration really depends on the person. Like all people, some teachers are very open to learning and broadening their ideas about the world, and some teachers are set in their ways, and struggle to imagine that their preconceived notions might not apply to everyone. It depends on that teacher’s own history, background, culture, and experience working with kids who aren’t “normal.” Speaking as a special ed teacher, I can say the best teachers I’ve met have been the ones who are willing to work with the child and the family to create a comfortable, positive learning environment, but the reality is that not every teacher is able to do that yet, and many teachers are not given the resources to know how.

—Ms. Sarnell