Cultural Competency 101: Characteristics of the Urban/Inner-City Pt. 1 (Lesson 4)

Whenever a coach or scout is looking for a player with a particular skill set to fit their team, they have various categories of players to choose from. If you are a basketball coach and you are looking for a tall guard who is quick, can handle the ball and can shoot a medium range jumper, then there are various categories of players that you can choose from; point guards, fast players, athletic players, and etc. You may not find everything that you are looking for when looking for a player to fit your system, but you take the best of what is out there and you teach; you mold and motivate as best as possible to get the most out of that particular player. The same is close to truth for the classroom. Except, unlike coaches and scouts, teachers don’t have “options” on who they teach. When you receive your roster for the year, you get who you get; there is no choosing students. For many teachers who work in inner-city schools, they wish they had the opportunity to pick and choose. Nevertheless, inner-city teachers, as with all teachers, are expected to make the best of whatever situation they find themselves in… and rightfully so. That is what teachers get paid to do.

Some teachers will argue they don’t get paid to be disrespected or to put up with outright defiance and backtalk from students. Some claim that aggravation was not a part of the job description. Well, here is a newsflash for those teachers; aggravation is a part of the job. What job have you ever heard of where people didn’t get aggravated? Everyone gets aggravated at work regardless of what industry it is. Teachers aren’t aggravated because the students necessarily want to make their job more difficult… well, maybe some of them do. But teachers must manage the various personalities in their classrooms each day. Depending how poorly you’ve accomplished the recommendations of the previous three lessons, the tendencies, behaviors and responses of your students may continually catch you off guard. You may assume that certain reactions are disrespectful and overtly out of line. They may be to some degree, but in order to understand where certain tendencies and behaviors come from, you’ve got to recognize the characteristics of your students.

In a previous lesson, I discussed the need to research your students. Doing the research means that you’ve got to study your students… every student you teach. Push yourself to know each of your students. Study them; what gets them excited, what bores them, what peaks their interests, who is their BFF, do they have affections for another student, how do they respond under pressure, are they a procrastinator? All of these things are vital to your lesson planning, instructional strategy and ability to think on the fly and improvise when necessary.

Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball or fairy godmother who can tell you how your students are exactly. We can try to figure out their opinions of us, and that can open the door to seeing students in a different light, as well as seeing ourselves in a different light, but when we consider inner-city students, there are circumstances that we may not be as prepared to account for when working with them. Nevertheless, their perspectives, experiences and circumstances must be understood in order to understand the features and profile of your inner-city learners. While all students are indeed different, there are some basic characteristics that inner-city learners share. The following is a list of those traits; 10 in all. This week we will start with 5 and we will finish the final 5, next week. This list is not representative of all inner-city learners, however in this list you will see some of your students; the descriptions will help you identify others students as well.

Urban/Inner City Students Are Characteristically…


In every classroom, you find visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners; urban/inner-city learners are often kinesthetic plus one. Your students want to get dirty; if there is a project or assignment associated with your lesson, they want to get in the mix of whatever it is you are talking about – as long as your activity is engaging and relevant. They want to learn by doing because often times, this is how they learn outside of school. Many students learn this way but for many urban/inner-city learners, due to the socioeconomics that influence their circumstances & viewpoint, their actions; whether voluntary or involuntary, prepare them to grow very fast. There may not be time for exploration and inquiry, only replication and refining. In the classroom, it is not that your students don’t have the desire to sit and listen because they do. However, their circumstances have engineered them to get to work. Most, if not all, of your students come from hard working families; some students come from homes with economic hardships and some come from broken homes with generational issues. In any case, much of your population is use to “growing up quick.” That often requires them to “get to work.” If you associate captivating work in the form of relevant and engaging assignments with your content, you will see a difference in your students. This is not to say that only urban/inner-city learners are hands-on, but it is to say that for many urban/inner-city students “getting their hands dirty” is one of the best ways to internalize information and achieve student ownership.


Some of your students will be quick to tell a joke or outsmart their peers in a verbal exchange. It’s not that they are looking to be the class clown or the center of attention. Like most people, kids look to humor to (1) take their mind where they don’t want to be, (2) distract themselves from their present circumstance or (3) defend themselves. Students can be funny for the sake of being funny, but there is usually an agenda behind making just about every opportunity a humorous one when in the classroom. I’ve found myself frustrated at times with students for whom everything is a joke. Most times, these students are seeking to shield a self-perceived weakness/deficiency or even mask vulnerability. What teachers have to understand is that they will be a target of a student’s quick wit if their pride is in jeopardy. It’s nothing necessarily against you, but if you’ve put a jokester on the spot, their agenda is to always look to secure the next laugh to protect their crafted “reputation.” Going joke for joke with a kid or thought for thought can be very dangerous for a teacher. It’s like walking in a mine field. If you intend on walking that mind field with a kid, be careful; remember that whenever a mine goes off, there is always at least one casualty.


Adolescents and teenagers have an opinion on just about everything; no matter how uninformed, no matter how ignorant it sounds, no matter who it offends, no matter where they’ve borrowed it from. Teenagers have opinions based on the nothingness they think is substantive. When a kid under the age of 12 talks, it can be even worse, because they often repeat directly what they’ve heard from home or on the street without the ability to repeat it accurately. When they say it, they sound even more ridiculous. Nevertheless, your students have opinions and sometimes, your classroom is to be their outlet to express themselves; whether you do current event assignments or if you have classroom discussions. Those are the moments when you, the teacher, can correct and redirect your students and help them work through their thoughts on any given subject. Sometimes, when a student speaks their mind, you learn a thing or two yourself. It pays to listen… listening helps you teach and it helps you and your students learn.


Some of your students have opinions and thoughts about everything and they come to school super talkative. That’s usually because they may not have the freedom to speak, inquire and critically think within conversations at home. Let me be clear, it is not because Black and Hispanic/Latino parents are uneducated and are unable to hold a thought provoking conversation with their kids. It is because culturally, children never debate adults; that can be taken as a sign of disrespect. Any form of disrespect is not tolerated in Black and Hispanic/Latino households. In these households, like in most households, freedom of speech is not the rule. You do as you are told and if you run your mouth too much and “get grown,” then there are consequences. In an educational setting, inquiry is welcomed and as educators we desire to assist students with finding their voice. Educators understand that there is a time and place but students who are always shut down don’t necessarily understand that. It’s not that your more talkative students just want to talk for the sake of talking; it may be because they are seeking to express themselves. They genuinely may not always get the opportunity to do so.


Every child desires order. Kids want to be structured; they love routine. Unfortunately, for some of your students nothing outside of school is routine for them, other than instability and the unusual. A child without structure is a child left to fend for themselves in the wilderness with foxes, wolves and hunters. One of the best things that you can do as a teacher is structure your classroom and your activities in a way that reinforces stability. Consistency is the key. When you are consistently consistent with your classroom management practices, your expectations and the way you teach, you tell a student that this is how things are – a fair and stable environment – and they can trust that it will stay that way. However, be careful not to marginalize a student. When a kid has structure, he or she can flourish. Your students know that. They may resist it at first, but you must out will them; which you can and you will – for their benefit.

While inner-city learners encompass many of these traits/characteristics, it is important to never type cast a kid according to behaviors expressed in one instant or continuously. All students have multi-faceted aspects of who they are. There are pieces of them you may never see. Yet recognizing some of these traits in your students may crack open a window to the soul of your students – that peak inside will change them and you each for the better.

Let’s continue to press towards the mark!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s