For Real Teachers In Our Toughest Schools
Monday January 22nd 2018



The Conditioning of Urban Teenagers

Here is a great article from Rockman, a social worker/blogger who works in an inner-city high school in Brooklyn. Even though we’re on opposite coasts, we all face the same problems, and so do our youth. If you get a chance, check out his blog at:

If teenagers can be conditioned to believe that “getting by”  is a goal they’ve chosen for themselves, or that their futures are limited by the circumstances in which they grow up… then they can be conditioned to break stereotypes and become much much more. Despite all that we read about inner-city youth, it is this simple. The behaviors and choices of our struggling urban youth are manifestations of their environments. When asked, their ideas about themselves sound more like cliche sound bites than honest reflections… and strangely, their inauthentic senses of self gives us hope, because it means their true natures have yet to be defined or discovered.

The only antidote to the toxic messages of inability that so many city children have absorbed is a crystal clear understanding of two truths.

1) That up until the moment they become aware of the ways they’ve been conditioned, their lives and their futures have not been their own.

2) They are without question, responsible for every word they speak and every action they take.

Black. White. Russian. Indian. Chinese. Hispanic. Middle Eastern. Muslim. Jewish. Catholic. Baptist. Wealthy. Poor.

Regardless of demographic, if a teenager can be guided to understand that the strengths and weaknesses they currently possess have been cultivated by messages from family, from music, from friends, from movies… than they can guided to realize that they do in fact have a say in how the rest of their futures play out. They can be freed from the delusion that they’re self-made and introduced to the idea of determining their real selves. And this is what they need to know to begin taking ownership of what they do with their days. In school. At home. In parks. With others. On their own. And this is when we might start to see the conviction and effort we so badly want to see.

Every day I hear the conditioned words and witness the conditioned choices of teenagers expressing a profound lack of fortitude, ownership and creativity. And what is saddest about what we’re seeing from so many inner-city teenagers, is that their deficiencies were not chosen by them… they were given to them. It is absolutely true that many city children are raised in broken families, exposed to traumas and neglect or compelled to endure stresses caused by economic hardship, but what they haven’t yet learned is that while these truths may steepen the incline, they in no way prevent ascent. The fortitude to learn and achieve is just as much their right as it is the right of anyone born into privilege… they just need to be guided past the maze of built-in excuses and justifications.

And this is where opportunity lives. The opportunity for individuals in positions to influence to stir the self-awareness needed to spark ownership… and the opportunity for the young people themselves to begin identifying and pursuing the lives they want to live.

Jeans sagging below backsides. Swear words every 3rd word. Reactive aggression. Sought conflict. Violent relationships. Drug use. Teen pregnancy. Failing grades. Issues with authority. Gang involvement. Bullying. Whatever the cliched behavior we’re witnessing from our inner-city teens, all they need is permission to be different, and a person insightful and direct enough to intelligently hold up a mirror and hold them accountable for the choices they make… and yes, it is possible to validate circumstances without pitying… and it is possible to hold accountable without being insensitive to circumstance.

If we’re trying to find the right buttons to push, we have to make sure our efforts are driven by an honest belief in their capacity to work harder and achieve more. There’s no room for guilt, pity or blinders when trying to light a fire in a child… because there is nothing more oppressive than low expectations or unrealistic goals.

If we’re trying to re-condition young people to believe in their actual abilities rather than accept their rumored inabilities, then we have to make sure that we never convey satisfaction when low expectations are met. And if we’re trying to incite personal revolutions in so many inner-city children who’ve been shackled and brainwashed by subtle, sneaky and crushing stereotypes… then we have to be transparent and relentless in what we know… which is that they’re living in a world that is either forgetting, or neglecting just how impressionable young people are, and that they are in fact powerful and capable far beyond what they currently feel.

No, my words here don’t answer the question of how to run classrooms in under-funded urban schools filled with under-performing students, but a deeper understanding of the obstacles and needs of our kids is a great place to start… and just as our inner-city youth are far more capable than they’re showing… so are the rest of us.

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3 Responses to “The Conditioning of Urban Teenagers”

  1. Kimberley Gilles says:

    I love the clear-eyed idealism of this piece. It expresses exactly the stance that has permitted me to work with teens for 27 years … without disillusionment. I can even extend Rockman’s points to the children of privilege who are “conditioned” to anticipate indulgence, a condition that can devastate character, believe it or not. These teens, too, are resilient and can learn to jettison the cliches they have adopted for themselves and begin to construct an authentic identity based upon what they learn as they journey inward. As an English teacher, I introduce teens to powerful stories that help students construct personal, idiosyncratic visions of the world and of themselves. And that IS how I run my classroom; that’s at the heart of all I do. Rockman’s piece CAN help us teach. As a mentor teacher, I’ll put this piece into the hands of my newly minted teachers.

  2. NJ HS Teacher says:

    I find the biggest hurdle is the walking contradiction that is teens: simultaneously wanting so badly to stand out while wanting so badly to fit in! One of the biggest obstacles I’ve seen is fear of rejection by kids who couldn’t care less about them. One of the saddest times of my brief teaching career was hearing students cheer and praise those who’d received failing scores on an assessment while booing and cursing those who’d passed.

    To KG’s point about children of privilege (and having taught them for two years), problems and challenges exist there, too, albeit much less pervasively. I’ll not soon forget the student who was upset that instead of a brand new car, he received a brand new computer for his 16th birthday. Or the girl who insisted that since she needed a 90 (for honor roll, parental approval, etc.), I should have added 3 to her 87 because she “tried really hard”.

  3. Tonica J says:

    Kimberly, do you mind sharing what stories you use? I am a new urban teacher, and always love others’ ideas!

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