Neighborhood Pressure: The Neighborhood’s Impact on a Child’s Decision-Making

ImageRecently, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a group of fifth graders.  Over time, we’ve developed quite a relationship where they feel comfortable opening up to me about things happening in their lives.  Often, we adults do not ask children what situations they face.  Maybe it’s because we tend to be in denial or maybe we don’t want to tackle those problems head on or maybe we just get so busy that we don’t ask children these real life questions.  Nevertheless, children are being pressured into deviant behavior whether we want to admit it or prioritize discussing it with them.

As the children I spoke to opened up, they told informed me that their peers were encouraging them to participate in illegal activities, and that sometimes they were equally as guilty for pressuring one of their friends or siblings to do the wrong thing.  For them, it is part of what they do in childhood.  You go to the store on the corner before or after school and stuff packs of gum and Now &  Laters and Hot Cheetos in your pockets.  When questioned by store staff, you blatantly lie so that now it just feels comfortable to be dishonest.  “Sometimes you do tell the truth,” said one child.  He then recalled a time he was accused of theft.  “The store cashier told me to be honest or else he would call the cops.  So I told him, ‘Yes, I did steal, but it’s because I’m poor and I cannot afford it.'”

As I listened intently to these real life accounts, it brought me back to my childhood.  I never had to shoplift for clothes at Old Navy in the local mini-mall in my county, but I absolutely remember people in my peer group doing it.  In an attempt to keep up with the changing trends and their parents lack of income, they risked getting arrested for a “best dressed” reputation.  I also remember instances where people would steal from the 711 and get into verbal spats with the employees.  More importantly, I remember where some of my peers ended up, and as my fifth graders share their lives with me, I wonder just how can I combat the neighborhood’s influence on their decision-making?

In schools across America, we teach character building through scenarios that happen on the school grounds such as playing fair on the playground, learning how to share materials during centers, or not pushing in line.  But I’m afraid we miss the perfect opportunity to bring up decisions our children face outside of school walls.

How are we preparing them to face their older brother or cousin who pressures them to smoke weed?  What about drinking a parent’s alcoholic beverage that was left unopened in the refrigerator?  These are also example of negative choices that the children I’m getting to know brought up.  Our children are constantly asked or pressured to make poor life choices on their block.  These choices can serve as gateways into even more negative behavior that could happen later in life.

Furthermore, in middle school I was involved in S.N.A.A.P (Students Notifying Adolescents About Prevention), and in elementary, middle and high school I participated in Youth to Youth.  Both of these programs helped me to combat the neighborhood and media’s influence on my decision-making.

Today, while chatting with the fifth graders, I was able to spew facts I learned about cigarette smoke and underage drinking at a young age.  They had no idea smoking cigarettes fills lungs with tar or that alcohol is a poison that can make them extremely sick, and that when adult gives them alcohol, it’s a crime.  Kids should receive all this information early on–in age appropriate doses–but definitely not sugar-coated.  On the streets, it’s not sugar-coated, and they certainly are not skipped over peer pressure because of their age.  It’s time we have this conversations or else deal with the consequences of having their peers or media lead them down the wrong path.

My questions to you:

  1. How do we get this information back into schools?
  2. Is this even being taught in health class at the late elementary level?
  3. What role do schools play in helping children make the right decisions, not just in school, but in life?
  4. How can schools address the type of pressure our kids face when they leave the grounds?  What has your school done to bring up these types of issues?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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The Best Chicago Strike Op-Ed!

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Tonight, as I sifted through tweets checking for articles on the Chicago Teachers Union, I found a gem. In my opinion, the best Chicago Teachers Union Strike op-Ed by far. Posted in The New York Times, the author Alex Kotlowitz asked a serious question, “Are We Asking Too Much of Teachers?” This is a question I asked myself earlier this year as I made the difficult choice to leave the classroom.

Fueled by my passion to create better schools for all public school students, I started teaching giving it 100%, even when that meant putting my life on hold as I struggled to manage the individual life circumstances of each of my students. You see, I never intended to be a career teacher. Being a teacher was just my first step in a lifelong journey to help bring innovative solutions to the most ailing problems facing our nation’s most poverty-stricken communities. I hope to one day be at the table where major decisions are made to benefit our
students. I believe that teacher voice is critical at that table.

Moreover, as my teaching days went on and years passed, writing objective-driven lesson plans aligned to standards every day wasn’t all that would deem me effective under DC Public School’s IMPACT evaluation system. I had to create Girls and Boys Day to introduce my scholars to positive mentors that look like them and had gone to college. I did home visits to build relationships with parents. I brought volunteers into the school to help get it ready for the first day of school. I wrote Donors Choose grants to get more resources into my classroom. I did everything in my human power to try to circumvent poverty’s impact on my classroom.

Nevertheless, late nights and early mornings entering student data in a computer taught me (the hard way) what I knew all along from growing up in an poverty-stricken city in southern NJ–just being an effective teacher alone cannot solve poverty, and I could not stress myself out about it. Because stressing myself out about my some of my students living in homeless shelters, not having food on the table or proper clothes to wear will break a person down–especially a teacher who comes to school every day garnering all hope possible to challenge this reality head on.

Now do not get me wrong. I agree that teachers must teach the best they can while knowing that we’re working against negative neighborhood environments that can suck our children into a tornado of negative choices that limit their life’s positive outcomes. I know that great teachers in every classroom will ensure that a student can be strong enough to believe in their future more than the dark reality that they live. I know that great teachers make a difference, but what Mr. Kotlowitz sheds light on is that teachers alone cannot rid our country of poverty. Putting so much pressure on schools does not serve our children or communities. Schools must also be supported by economic policies at the local, state and federal levels that create more sustainable and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods that produce more equitable schools.

While so many people have the luxury of never stepping foot in an impoverished community, teachers in our most troubled schools don’t. It’s easy to be on Capital Hill and never come to Southeast DC, but make sweeping generalizations about all the teachers who work in the “failing” schools. It’s easy to work in Chicago Public Schools’ Central Office and never fully empathize with a student who asks you every day to see his incarcerated father, but you have to tell him it’s okay and help him stay focused on the lesson. When we dare teachers to be on the frontlines, having the audacity to fight poverty in they see and feel, we better have their backs every step along the way.

More than likely, Chicago won’t be the answer to Mr. Kotlowitz’s question–just like schools alone cannot heal our nation from wound of poverty. However, when we bring thoughtful dialogue and perspective in the conversation, we allow a better product to be produced. Here’s to a quick end to the strike, but to continued conversation. Thank you for Chicago for sparking the dialogue. We can either use this as a time to point fingers or to really begin to ask the tough questions that help us create systemic solutions.

Mr. Kotlowitz, I applaud you for bringing depth to the conversation. To read his piece that inspired my post click here