4 Keys to Encouraging Students to Help the Neediest Among Us

Rightfully so, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can help children who are economically challenged. Schools are our best tools against poverty, which we know from the proven connection between education and the ability to attain higher-paying jobs and careers.

Most students have a desire to help other people - they need teachers to guide them in the best way to give.Yet this is sometimes only part of the picture.

Classrooms occasionally have wealthy children who appear to have “everything” who nevertheless seem impoverished by a lack of caring and compassion at home. Meanwhile, many children who want to help others need an age-appropriate way to act on that desire.

Here are some proven strategies for helping students help others:

Reinforce compassion

Dr. Paul Farmer, one of our leading voices on social issues, maintains that consistent and systemic poverty does not reflect the failings of the poor — it happens because societal structures are tilted against certain people, making poverty more an inevitability than a personal choice.

While that may be too big of an idea for students to understand, you can still help them respond to poverty by enabling them to volunteer for food drives, raise money for good causes and connect with  local aid groups. The underlying theme of this work is we’re not just helping people because we can spare the time to do it.  We do it because lifting others up is a necessary and expected behavior of all good people.

Help your students embrace the paradox that by giving to others, we actually receive much more for ourselves.

Think beyond donations

While it feels good to give to the needy, we’re only doing half the job if we merely collect and distribute material goods. The rest of the job of giving is to create a human connection between donors and needy people.

This came alive in my professional practice when I took groups of students to a soup kitchen to help prepare, serve and connect with the hungry. We encouraged our students to meet and greet the kitchen’s guests, engage in conversations and help to break down the idea that the poor were somehow different from them.

Address the poverty of connection

I alluded to this at the beginning of this post. Over the years I’ve worked with incredibly wealthy students. While many of them had strong home lives, family connections and proper perspectives, a few suffered from a complete lack of human connection to their families. Wealth was a tool to paper over the family’s lack of emotional closeness and evade the need for supportive adults at home.

Open your door to listening to and caring for these students, and be prepared for them to pour their hearts out to you. These can be the best students to get involved in leadership activities, as they’ll enjoy being there for others while meeting some of their own emotional needs.

Avoid being judgmental

Poverty, poor people and the perception that they are a drain on society are hot-button topics that trigger strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Rather than wade into those choppy waters, reinforce the expectation that all people deserve compassion and assistance, even though no one should be exempt from reasonable expectations.

Emphasize that those with more should always consider the needy, but that there is no expectation that we are to give without consideration or regard for whom we are giving to. Share what you have, but don’t just give it away blindly.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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