Why Can’t Inner City Kids Learn?

April 18, 2007 at 12:00 pm | Posted in education, elementary, gangs, inner city, poverty, schools, teachers | 19 Comments

I just about fell out of my chair when I saw that in my e-mail box this morning. I guess my blog is starting to reach some people.

The purpose of my blog of course is to have a space for ME to communicate to ME all the good things and all the bad things that happen to me as an inner city teacher. Amazingly, I’ve made contact with some awesome, positive teachers out in the world, which is very encouraging. But the reason why I started this blog is because at my inner city school, I am surrounded by some very negative, pessimistic, and awful teachers.

And the big question with these teachers is, “Why can’t these kids learn?” Their attitude is clear. They delivered the curriculum. Why can’t these kids learn? They’re just not motivated, or they’re born with crack in their systems, or it’s their parents’ fault, gang bangers the lot of them.

At a “professional development” meeting three weeks ago, the conversation once again turns to “Why can’t these kids learn?” even though we were supposed to be discussing methods of positively motivating our students.

I finally just said bluntly, “Actually, I don’t see these problems with my students. They’re not perfect, but they’re fairly well behaved and we work hard, but we learn.”

Moment of awkwardness. Then, the conversation turns to how to keep these unruly kids from getting out of their seats constantly or tattle-telling on each other.

Why Can’t These Kids Learn?

There are many reasons why these kids can’t learn. I shall just list the reasons I personally have witnessed at my school among my colleagues.

    • The teacher sits at her desk and yells at the students. Nothing is written on the board as the teacher never leaves her seat or points generally in the direction of the chart she’s referring to, thus confusing the students.
      • The teacher humiliates students. The teacher yells at students things such as, “Why can’t you learn?” or “Didn’t I just show this to you?” Student immediately shuts down and refuses to learn.
        • Teacher shows up late to pick up the students in the morning, late to pick up students at recess, and late to pick up students at lunch. Teacher yells at students for being tardy. Teacher demonstrates lack of commitment, so why should students be committed?
          • Teacher spends much of class time looking for materials that she hasn’t prepared for the lesson. She leaves class to work on a quiet activity while she goes to the copy room or to another teacher to borrow materials. She yells at students for not being quiet while she’s trying to get her act together for the lesson.
            • Five minutes into a lesson, the teacher is reading the teacher guide to see what she has to teach. Students have to wait quietly while she figures out what they’re supposed to learn.
              • Teacher doesn’t know the purpose of a lesson, so teaches an entirely different lesson (probably due to her unpreparedness). I love this one as its very prevalent at my school. Here’s an example. The lesson is a 20 minute lesson in our reading program that’s supposed to teach students comprehension attack strategy. The teacher spends an hour forcing the students to read the entire passage one table at a time in order and shooting rapid-fire on-the-surface recall questions at five kids (ignoring the fact that everyone else isn’t paying attention) in an attempt to make sure that everyone understands the content of the story. Then, there’s the teacher who, when it was time to teach the content of the story, instead of focusing on the theme of the unit, money, spends a week on segregation and wonders why her kids didn’t focus on the writing prompt in the assessment. Funny!
                • Students do one worksheet after another that the teacher finds valuable in one of those books you find at the teacher store and gets upset when advised by the administration to focus on the standards and the curriculum. The reason why she’s upset is because education these days don’t allow teachers creativity. The students get more worksheets nonetheless while she sits at her desk or beautifies her classroom. These are all true stories! Honest!
                  • Teacher puts on a video in the last hour of the day because, you know, the kids are getting unruly and needs a break. The videos are not even tangential to the students learning. Fridays are the worst.
                    • Everyday is drawing, art, and music day. This is particularly cruel and prevalent in the younger classes and the Special Ed classes. You can always tell which students come from these teachers…It’s very sad because they are far behind all the other students academically and in second grade have to learn skills that they should have learned in Kindergarten.

                      I can go on and on!

                      I mentioned that I substituted five days in another third grade teacher’s class about a week and a half ago. At the end of the five days, the grandmother of one of the students asked me if he can transfer into my classroom instead because “I’m not saying Mr. XXX is a bad teacher, but XXX did so much work when he’s with you and he didn’t get into trouble at all, but Mr. XXX is always telling me how XXX is bad and he ain’t with you.”

                      I had a frozen smile on my face and can only assure her that her grandson is actually quite capable and just needs motivation to stay focus on his work. Her grandson definitely has a focusing problem, but that’s my job, right? To motivate him to learn.


                      RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

                      1. Hey! You need some comments!

                        Yep, I see this too. And I’m not even remotely close to being inner city. I think attitude is such an important thing, and can actually equalize against other factors such as experience. Many of the most cynical teachers are also the most experienced.

                        Which is why I always look at where I am before signing next year’s contract and think about how happy and satisfied I am. If I’m unhappy and can’t devote myself to doing an adequate job, I need to look towards other options.


                        Dick, you’re right. It is the attitude that makes the difference. I had not thought that was the root of the problem! And yes, I see it at my school too, that some of the most experienced teachers also do the least for their students. – CT

                      2. you are very right, especially about teachers who stay seated at their desk all the time. Its a funny thing about that. My children have asked me to sit down on occassion. Apparently, I walk around looking over their shoulder too much. Also, it is the more tenured teachers who dont appear to have diversity in their methods. My kids often get engaged and rowdy as a result of some of my lessons. Some of those teachers have walked by the room and shook their heads. Kids learn when they are active and they learn EVEN more if you can find a way for them to get out of their chair. I have plenty more to say on this; but i guess i should put it on my blog.

                        Proverbs, I would love to read your take on this in your blog! I can’t imagine teaching my class without being on my feet and my kids get rowdy as well. Let me know when you have this article up! – CT

                      3. I wept as I read this posting CT. I find it incredibly saddening to hear of such malpractice and share your anger. Is there anything more dispiriting than a bad teacher? Sadly, it was ever thus but, like yourself, I work for the day when all teaching is a credit to the profession; when students everywhere are treated with respect and enjoy the right to learn, led by committed, caring and inspiring teachers.

                      4. Andrew, thank you for your kind comment! Now, you understand my appreciation for your posts. Your excellent postings on best practices reassures me that I’m not being needfully idealistic. Again, thank you!

                      5. The sad truth it seems is that “They”, those who run the show, don’t really care. I spent two years working with gang members in St. Louis, and I got the impression those kids (actually poor kids in general, unless extraordinary) were disposable.

                      6. I must admit that I although I have seen some bad practices, I have thankfully never seen these sort of teaching practices. I am also in the inner city, but I wouldn’t work anywhere else.

                      7. […] I’m dreading it.  I know the boy because he was part of that class that I substituted five days in.  I’ve already taught him for five days (which is a big plus).  He know a bit of what […]

                      8. Wow….your blog is a source of inspriration. I teach middle school in the inner city and am struggling with it. Your posts give me much to think about.

                      9. I’ve never seen teachers who stay at their desk all day, ok, maybe one, but he’s retiring and he’s pretty much thumbed his nose to the system. I can understand if walking into classrooms, that is what one perceives, but do not let it be known that this is what all teachers do. As an educator myself, I sit maybe once to take attendance and the rest of the time I am on my feet trying to motivate students to learn. There is much to be said that some current teachers may not be doing their jobs effectively, so then I have to question, what is this magical bullet that will enable us to educate these children who can not sit still? I try with great effort each day and leave exhausted and still am met with looks from my supervisor that says he doesn’t approve, yet, I wonder, what else can I do that I have not yet done? Be more creative, yes, of course, easier said than done, and I have read every book on the subject but none of them ever place the ideas very clearly. How strange really, we are told to be creative, then we are told to learn in the fashion that they rail against.

                        This isn’t so much of a rant nor am I necessarily disagreeing. I suppose I was stricken somewhat by your statement and as a frustrated teacher am at a loss of where to go.

                      10. “I’ve never seen teachers who stay at their desk all day, ok, maybe one, but he’s retiring and he’s pretty much thumbed his nose to the system.”

                        Akira, I guess that’s pretty much true of these other teachers who sit at their desks all day. They are not being held accountable by the administration so feel that they can thumb their noses at the system.

                        There is no magical bullet, it is a constant, year after year process of learning to become a better teacher.

                        You are doing what these negative teachers of 15+ years of experience are not doing: you are asking yourself questions, reflecting. Keep doing that because it’s the questions that lead you to become a better teacher.

                        As for your comment about creativity: bully creativity. Who’s telling you to be more creative?! You need to be more effective. Creativity comes later once you have command of the basics down.

                        Find one thing you want to improve, just one thing. Reflect on your current strategies. Find one that you think will work for you. Try it for a time. Repeat until you improve. This pretty much is the formula for improving any aspect of your life, isn’t it?

                      11. After spending the past 20 years in education, I have held a variety of positions at several campuses and school districts in town. I have seen all of the above and more. We may all be guilty of sitting down now and then but that isn’t the same as sitting all day while students do seatwork or worksheets all day. I couldn’t teach that way day in day out and certainly understand why those types of teachers have discipline problems and blame students on their difficulties. Unfortunately, it is usually the tenured teachers that take this approach but there are many fabulous and wonderful teachers out there. I know I didn’t have any teachers that made a lasting impact on me growing up and I think that is why I became a teacher – to challenge, motivate and help those students that aren’t interested in school. It is sad that these teachers refuse to recognize the disservice they are doing to their staff, students and community. The students are the ones suffering the most in these situations. Keep up the great work and continue to write posts challenging educators to be advocates for quality instruction!

                        Kim Caise, NBCT

                      12. […] future of online learning – 10 years on Becoming a more reflective Individual Practitioner Why Can’t Inner City Kids Learn The Glass Bees Planning to share versus just sharing The Time is Now Be an elearning action hero […]

                      13. Hello everyone! Have any of you in the past or present encountered this situation?
                        Here’s the scene: Inner city school under corrective action for several years, new principal comes in and turns the school around, most of the years instruction is focused towards benchmark and state achievement tests, school is now out of corrective action and is returned to regular status in the school district, the school is a dumping ground for local charter schools’ and catholic schools’ discipline problems, on top of teaching the regular curriculum you are now responsible for added “teach to the test agenda,” 31-33 children in a class, parents won’t cooperate or answer the phone, you must grade, review and re-teach added agenda on top of regular curriculum, you must keep a log on guided reading, math, writing and CSAP constantly, because the principal will sneak into your room and check to see if your doing it, the principal has former teachers running around not doing much of anything but go by the title principal liaison, a staff of untrained school climate people (discipline/ conflict resolution) fighting with each other and using teachers as a way to get back at each other, a lazy guidance counselor who got the cake job from connections, told by the principal to cheat on benchmarks by not giving the answer, but to tell them to keep trying until they bubble the right letter, put up an unbelievable amount of posters outlining objectives that the kids are to young to understand, inundated with interruptions from the neighboring teacher who is unorganized but is personal friends with the principal, told to constantly give tests and benchmarks when the kids can’t master or have not had enough time to master the skills, kill yourself everyday to try to get through to 33 students, realize that your only running on the spot and not really getting anywhere, added pressure from the principal who admitted that the school district is setting us up to fail by putting ambiguously hard to answer trick questions on the benchmarks, more on top of more on top of more, a paranoid principal who is only interested in her own agenda and is trampling on our civil liberties and contract to do so, an unhappy staff that won’t stand up due to fear of retaliation, a weak union, and write ups!, oh yeah- we are supposed to teach too! I forgot-33 kids and not a drop of help in the classroom!- Has this happened to you? How can you get around it? People tell me that the principal thinks highly of me, but to me, we are prevented from teaching these kids adequately, despite the overwhelming behavior issues. Please comment!

                      14. […] online learning – 10 years on – Stephen Downes Becoming a more reflective Individual Practitioner Why Can’t Inner City Kids Learn The Glass Bees Planning to share versus just sharing The Time is Now Be an elearning action hero […]

                      15. […] that more time goes wasted in these schools.  (I refer you to my favorite blog post ever, Why Can’t Inner City Kids Learn, by City Teacher for […]

                      16. I too teach in a Title I school – a high school. And I understand and value how important it is to get the basics in the elementary grades. Our elementary schools used to have terrible marks on any test they took. They are now highly rated on the state exams and it shows because students now come to the high school with basic reading and math skills. They are not super stars, but they can do the basics.

                        I also understand your frustration with teachers close to the end of their career who are coasting. But I’ve also seen rookies who didn’t know the correct end of a pencil. Kids fresh out of college who couldn’t use a word processing program, never mind navigate the electronic gradebook. I’ve also seen vets, like one math teacher in my building who’s changed teaching assignments at least five times in the last 15 years and volunteered to take freshmen when their test scores were the worst in our building. She’s not coasting. A 30+ year vet, she uses a smart board like a pro and never complains.

                        I think lazy administrators are the biggest bane of schools. Too many let bad teachers slide because of friendships, politics, paperwork or pure incompetence. I once had an AP that was my evaluator, he never set foot in my classroom. He did get fired, but it took a whole year to get rid of him.

                        The problem is that, even in the recession, there are not enough quality teachers to go around. This is doubly true at urban Title I districts. The national teacher turnover rate is 15%, but at many urban schools that number is much higher 20-30% some years. Many see an urban school as a place to get 3-4 years of experience, so they can take a cushy job in a wealthy suburban or community focused rural district.

                      17. Why Can’t These Kids Learn? Sadly a common question being asked from multiple perspectives and reflected in everyone’s anxiety, frustration and endless adjusting. TEACHERS-you have explained with frankness and purpose. PARENTS-I will try in good faith and based on our child’s schooling experiences. We knew our child could and should be able to do work at school and home and learn but he was tragically and obviously not, began to wonder if he just wasn’t trying, going through some ‘stage’, countless partners pointing fingers at parenting, poverty, satisfaction surveys and outcome reports showing excellence that work to distract, tried to bargain, plead, reward or threaten to no avail, stopped going into the school, flooded by negative culture and ‘rules’, read books on guide to parenting, felt school work assignments allow ways out like art work, videos to show comprehension instead of any written work, to reflect literacy skills, ask ‘What did you do in school today and told ‘we watched a movie’. GOVERNMENT- see results, influenced by interpreted ‘reports’, implements endless strategies, training, incentives, innovations, interventions and expensive tests, etc because they are also puzzled and asking ‘why can’t these kids learn?’ Then there is the STUDENT-who through this whole mess keeps asking himself ‘why can’t I learn this stuff’ and this is the real tragedy! They came into school willing and eager and know they are more than able to do the work but still they struggle and it gets worse – they disengage rather than look ‘dumb’, do not see teacher during lunch for the same reason, will not read, lie to protect themselves. What is missing has nothing to do with any one group, we can stop pointing fingers, it has more to do with attitude and culture created with negative perceptions or we would not be asking this type of question. Instead of directing so much expert energy and resources toward meeting their ‘needs’ like there is something wrong with them, determine ‘what these kids need’ and deliver along with the essential skills needed to learn like how to read and write cursives K-12 and ensure they know they have retained and can use their literacy skills at each grade level achieved so they can learn. Noone can continue to learn by reading or at a grade three skill level and it is worse when you factor in evaluations and natural regression let alone circumstances. It would be inevitable they will begin to struggle, when will depend on their differences, they feel the stress, become overwhelmed and have no choice but to react by either acting out, shutting down or dropping out. Why can’t these kids learn? The answer is ‘They can’.
                        Brenda Logan

                      18. All children can learn — but dogs, too, can learn. Statements like “all children can learn” often obfuscate discussions about education. Regardless of what even the most cynical of people may say, I think the majority of them understand and agree that all children can learn. But can all children learn the same skills at the same rate, with the same amount of effort put into their learning? That is a much more important question, often ignored for what I think are often political reasons.

                      Leave a Reply

                      Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

                      WordPress.com Logo

                      You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

                      Google photo

                      You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

                      Twitter picture

                      You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

                      Facebook photo

                      You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

                      Connecting to %s

                      Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.
                      Entries and comments feeds.

                      %d bloggers like this: