5 Tips for Teaching in an Urban Environment
Introduction: Shifting the Focus
Rather than outlining the things that have been ingrained in the consciousness of teachers, (consistency, expectations, avoiding confrontation, etc.) these five tips will seek to illuminate the things that educators often overlook. When teaching students in an urban environment, you can't always rely on a consistent school culture. Sometimes, teachers can't even rely on a consistent classroom environment.
The following tips take the focus away from school culture and put the impetus on teachers to modify their way of behaving towards students in such an environment. Following these steps will not provide teachers with a cure-all or a one-size-fits-all tool, but they will serve to provide teachers with a venue for self-reflection and self-modification.
1. Be Genuine
Above all things, teachers in urban environments have to be genuine. All too often, teachers try to sell themselves as “hip” and “with-it.” Teachers change their tone of voice and demeanor in an effort to relate to these students. The irony is that urban students have a well-developed sixth sense. That is to say, that urban students can identify individuals who are not “acting themselves,” almost immediately.
Teachers do this to avoid confrontation with “problem” students. The unfortunate result is that those students do not actually change their behavior. Instead, they turn the corner and continue their behavior elsewhere. Once students have identified teachers that try too hard to relate, they use these teachers as passive supports for their behavior.
“I was visiting Mr. X's class,” or “Mrs. Y was talking to me in the hallway,” are common excuses for tardiness and hall wandering. It is not the fault of these teachers. Their goal is to create a positive relationship with a student who likely has few. It is that end, however, that causes a breakdown in the school consistency that those same teachers work so hard to habituate.
When interacting with students in an urban environment, always be yourself. If you are a nerd for your subject matter, be a nerd. Urban students will respect a teacher that can embrace their nerdiness, (usually with some self-deprecating humor) much more than a teacher who is an identification actor. You can't embrace a student's identity if you can't embrace your own.
2. Tabula Rasa
Teachers have an incredible weight put on them. “Teacher” is not an identification of a profession, so much as it is an umbrella term used to describe what educators actually do. At any moment an educator has to be ready to be a counselor, physician, mediator, salesman, nurturer, scientist, artist, comedian, demonstrator, etc. What makes this even more difficult is the simultaneity of it all; all of these things may be happening at once, for more than 30 individuals.
In order to handle this weight, teachers must match it. Teachers must envision themselves as stone tablets. Very heavy, self-cleaning, stone tablets. Every day, or rather, every class period, teachers must clean off their slate and remind themselves that the negative things that happened in previous classes are now gone. It is a difficult task, but mastering it helps to create a safe environment for students.
Effective teachers understand that students are predisposed to challenging authority figures. These teachers do not take it personally when a student makes a behavioral error. Teachers who master personal tabula rasa remind their students that they care, no matter how challenging students can be. Students in urban environments need teachers who are not reactionary. The world of an urban student, any student for that matter, is a web of reactions. Diffuse this web, even if for only a class period, so that students can take risks without fear of reaction.
Acting this way 100% of the time is a difficult task, especially when other stressors outside of the classroom play on a teacher's patience. Imagine a rock, appreciate it for its inherent objectivity, its scars and markings, its place in the environment, and its silent movement and perceptibility. Become this rock and the weight of teaching will become lighter.
3. Bridge the Gap Between Your Experiences and Your Students'
Again, if you are a nerd, be a nerd. However, be sure to find a way to connect your nerdiness to your students. Urban students expect there to be a gap in their success, as much as they expect there to be a gap between themselves and teachers. Be creative and think about your experiences. Try to find an experience to share with your students. One genuine shared experience can help students connect with a teacher.
As teachers begin to play on their own experiences in the classroom, they will find that there is very little difference between urban students and themselves. Regardless of your background, find a situation from your life that speaks to both students, and to the class content. In time, as students gain respect for a teacher, that teacher will learn to take advantage of classroom experiences. These shared moments will galvanize the bridge between student and teacher experience.
Be aware, genuineness, as it applies to personality, also applies to experience. Do not fabricate situations to foster relationships with students. Be yourself, be self-reflective, be creative, and these situations will make themselves available to you. The key is to take advantage of these situations when they come along.
4. Be Flexible
Crazy things happen in any school environment; however, craziness can be magnified exponentially in an urban school environment. Be aware of what is going on in the environment at all times so that you can be flexible. Do not confront students in ways that can be perceived as accusatory. If a student is having a rough day, or underperforming, approach that student individually, and honestly. It is in a student's nature to bring the hallway with them into the classroom. Make sure that you have ways to diffuse “hallway” issues. Be ready to counsel students at any moment. Happenings that seem trivial to educators can feel like a crisis in the life of a student. Be sensitive to this.
Sometimes, that great lesson plan that you worked on for weeks fails miserably. If you have taken advantage of common experiences and you have bridged the gap, your students will understand when things don't work out. Don't be afraid to ask your students why they are disengaged, they can provide valuable feedback. It doesn't make you less of a professional to ask your clients what they need. In fact, this is good practice in any business.
Break down the walls between you and your students, they will appreciate the autonomy and the sense of agency they receive through critiquing your effectiveness. You will often be surprised by what you learn. Doing this can be a quick way to repair student engagement before it gets out of hand.
Learning about the demographic you're in does not mean befriending students in ways that are unprofessional. Maintain professional relationships with all students, do not put yourself in a situation, when exploring their demographic, that causes your professionalism to be questioned. It is, however, important for you to apply your knowledge of students' backgrounds to the classroom.
Do not think that you truly understand their background even after this, but be ready to respond to conversations that occur naturally in class. Use your newfound knowledge as best you can, without overstepping the boundaries of students and professionalism.
5. Know Your Demographic
Do not be ashamed to recognize your ignorance of students' backgrounds. Explore the area that your students come from. Eat where they eat, walk the streets that they walk, shop where they shop, and put yourself in their shoes. Doing so will provide you with insight into why students react, think, and expect things the way they do. You may not completely understand a student's culture after this activity, but you will know more than you did before.
Knowing this information can help you to become less reactionary. If you know that there are issues in a student's neighborhood, you will be less likely to find yourself in a confrontation with a student because of a “bad day.” Your positive perception of a student is important to them, especially when their environment outside of school is exceedingly negative.
You must take on the role of a researcher and scientist. After observing the effects of environment on a student, hypothesize, test, and evaluate potential ways to combat the effects of their environment. This type of reflection is invaluable to educators. Use it to build more effective diffusion and relationship building skills.
As said previously, these tips are not a cure-all. They do not change the larger failures of the environment and school systems; however, they can provide powerful insight into your own behavior and practice. You may find that most of these tips apply to non-urban students as well, and that is true. Students everywhere can benefit from positive, self-reflective teachers. Feel free to use these tips and comment on any results you find while using them. I would love to hear your feedback.