What Does Privilege Look Like?
Notes from year one at FIS
As my first year at Fancy International School has wrapped up, I have tried to think about the major things that I “got wrong” in my thinking about what the move to working in a place like FIS would look like. On the whole, most of them aren’t really worth writing about, and are generally quite positive (ex. it’s even easier to teach at FIS than I could have possibly imagined it would be). There’s only one thing that I can think of that I didn’t understand before I showed up that I think is worth some words on a page:
Privilege does not look like what I thought it would.
Teaching highly-privileged youth does not resemble my naive thoughts on what it would be. In fact, when compared to the reality of the situation, my initial thoughts on the topic are pretty cringey in retrospect, and they are almost insulting to my students. I think I knew enough to expect that my students would not exhibit the type of caricatured “spoiled brat” behavior that characterizes popular representations of the well-heeled, but I also know that had I witnessed such behaviors, I wouldn’t have been surprised. In my mind, these kids were going to be somewhat warped by the money and resources of their lives, and that was going to show up in unfortunate ways. Maybe they would regularly whine about “first-world” problems. Maybe they would treat the support staff (or even their teachers) as somehow less-than. Maybe, they would generally be insufferably tone-deaf to the ways that the rest of the world lived.
One year on, I haven’t seen any of that. My kids aren’t snobs, and they don’t complain about their lives. Generally speaking, they all recognize that they are incredibly fortunate to exist in their circumstances, though this is only really when you ask them about it directly. More often, their day-to-day is spent like every other group of kids I’ve ever worked with. It would be rare to see them overtly talking about their privilege, if only because they all seem to understand just how gauche such a conversation would be. Fortunately, I think, the money isn’t usually mentioned, but it’s also not hidden. My students know that they occupy special space.
It goes quite a bit beyond just how they act on the day-to-day. FIS is the most socially-conscious organization that I have ever worked for. Service is a central part of the mission of the school, to the point that service is a requirement for graduation. The school has myriad service clubs that do good, genuine work for people and organizations in Singapore, and throughout the region. The amount of fundraising and participatory service work that FIS does is unlike anything I have seen anywhere else. The school is continuously engaged in the work of improving what we might call its social conscience. This year, student-generated assemblies focused on recognizing the work and contributions of our administrative assistant staff, and to broadening the inclusive nature of dialogue among the student body.
Student-agency, more broadly, is remarkable. In my prior school, students would participate in clubs, etc., but the expectation was that the adults in the room would spend a lot of effort to helm things and make sure they happened correctly. At FIS, the students really do the work of these things. In my year as co-sponsor of the Science National Honor Society, I had to oversee two different events: A symposium and a retreat. In both instances, the students of the SNHS planned and executed the entire projects, down to cleaning up at their conclusion. I even had to convince the early arrivals that it was okay to start eating some of the pizzas before everyone showed up. This is how every club works. I attended a prom where adult supervision was not really required for anything. The students were uniformly well-behaved and more appropriate than most weddings than I have attended. At the end of a concert that I attended, the final remarks were by the student leadership of the Tri-M music honor society reminding every member in attendance that it was their responsibility to help break down the stage and equipment.
Have you ever had a room full of students thank you at the end of a lesson? I have. It happens every day at the end of every class that I teach.
This is what privilege looks like at FIS. It’s not a snobby distaste for the lives of others, it’s an active interest in being the best people that students can be. In retrospect, this makes sense. You don’t generally become a person of means by looking down your nose at the rest of the world. The circumstances in which my students live are a function of parents and cultures that pretty actively encourage them to make the most of themselves. What’s different for my students, and really where their privilege shows up, is that they have the time, space, and material support necessary to give themselves over to their self-improvement as fully as they can, without worrying about anything on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. They are free to work as hard at the project of bettering themselves as they wish, and most of them choose to work very hard at it.
It’s a fortunate life for them to live. Fortunately, they know it.