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You Can't Blame the Youth

You Can't Blame the Youth

Trevor Gardner, a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco, writes about an attempt to place responsibility in the proper hands.

Trevor Gardner Email TrevorGardner

"You teach the youth about Christopher Columbus and you say he was a very great man...
So, you can't blame the youth of today."

-- Peter Tosh

I have grown so wearied and angered by blindly opinionated responses to the point that, now, when people ask, I don't specify the school at which I teach; choosing instead a generalizing vagueness – "I teach high school history" or "I just teach in San Francisco." Patronizing replies are predictable and most of the time people do not realize the prejudice in their words when they recite their version of the sympathetic mantra, "That must be so difficult, working with ‘those' kids. I admire your being able to work there but I don't think I could do it. It must be a challenge."

I teach at Thurgood Marshall High School, a San Francisco public school located in one of the most violent and impoverished neighborhoods in the Bay Area – Bayview/Hunter's Point. Yes, the school is racked with problems, from squeezing 1,100 high schoolers into a building built for little over half that number of middle school children to an iron-fisted district that has forgotten that students are individual human beings, not programmable robots. In fact, our ailments often feel more abundant that our ability to overcome. However, in four years of teaching and learning at Thurgood Marshall I have come to understand one truth: the students are not the problem. Only upon this premise can we make schools work for the education of all children.

Many people outside of education, and even educators with no experience working in urban schools harbor false assumptions about the kids in our classrooms (tragically, this group also includes some teachers working in urban school classrooms). The stigmatic term "inner city schools" is often thrown around to signify the troubled and low performing schools attended by "those" bad students – the ones who have little hope of succeeding. We see it every day in the media: low scores on standardized tests, high dropout rates, inability to retain strong teachers; indeed, these schools are in crisis. Who is to blame according to those looking in from the outside? The students. This conclusion is misinformed and untrue. It is a dangerous lie that falsely stigmatizes the incredible children who attend urban schools across the country; the children I teach.

Who, then, actually holds the responsibility for the failure of so many urban public schools and the children that faithfully attend them with the hope of liberating themselves through education? The remainder of this essay will attempt to answer this complex question.

Let's start with a rule about teaching: students will push barriers as far as they are given space to push them; but they will also rise to expectations as high as they are given support and encouragement to rise. Schools have the ability to be either anchor or wings for children. I have been taught, by incredible educators such as Paolo Freire and bell hooks, that the purpose of educations is liberation, setting kids free. Unfortunately, the public institutions created to set them free are too often molded of iron and not of feathers. This may be true of most public schools but it is a particular dilemma in urban schools due to scarcity of funding, high teacher dropout, and general lack of community and political support. And increasingly, the education system itself is becoming a barrier in the path to liberation as opposed to an advocate working to assure student success.

What are some of those barriers? Let me begin by painting a portrait of the normal public high school: The average number of students on a role sheet is between thirty and thirty-five. High school teachers generally teach five separate classes. Completing the math tells you that most teachers are responsible for the education of about 150 students in their particular subject area. Thurgood Marshall is unique in that we run on a block schedule, which allows us more daily time with each class – about 100 minutes. However, most schools have fifty-minute classes, which means teachers see all of their students every day. Every Monday through Friday, within a seven-hour period of time, teachers are responsible for educating an overwhelming number of unique individuals. If broken down into one-on-one time with the teacher, this structure gives students an average of 150 seconds per day with any given teacher. Of course, this factory model of schooling may be effective for the students with strong academic skills, effective auditory and visual processing abilities, and an inherent interest in what is being taught; unfortunately, far too many children do not possess this golden combination. Those lacking such important skills or abilities often find themselves in the fog or near silence of a classroom moving too fast or teaching that is nearly impossible for them to learn from. Intensifying their frustration is a critical lack of support for learning. One teacher, thirty-fives students, a flood of questions, fifty minutes per day and we all fall down. The scenario I have painted is not an exaggeration. It is a reality that daily leads students to frustration, giving up, low confidence, a sense of the meaninglessness of education and, ultimately (in many more cases than most people are aware of) dropping out of school.

Even for those who possess the skills, abilities, and focus to succeed in learning what is necessary to pass their classes, another structural barrier arises in the form of the daily schedule. Starting at 8 am, students begin their daylong trek from class to class to class to class to class to class to class, finding themselves in six or seven different rooms with just as many sets of rules, expectations, and group dynamics – a rushing river of learning through which they must maneuver with smoothness and grace before being set free at 3:20. No time to pause and reflect, converse with friends, or have a bad day amidst the torrent. The day of a public high school student is literally sink or swim.

I don't think a day has gone by in my five years of teaching when I have not heard a student complain about being bored by one, many, or all of his or her classes, including, of course, my own. I do not believe it is a teacher's responsibility to entertain students in the classroom. Given the fast-paced and violently engaging nature of the medias that surround them in most outside-of-school-moments, this would prove an inane exercise, even if attempted. However, the en vogue high stakes testing, standards-based mode of "learning" that has its bars wrapped around public education (and children's minds) today ignores the most important reality about teaching: the learners are individual human beings, each with a different set of values, experiences, desires, beliefs, and cultural backgrounds. Such rigidity ignores the human element. It is not difficult to understand that if you make learning meaningful to children's lives, they will find meaning in education. If they are ignored as individuals, they will struggle to learn to think and make sense of the complex world around them. Even worse, if they find what they are taught to be meaningless in their lives, they will turn away from education.

Teaching high school is the most frustrating, challenging, and overwhelming thing I have ever done. It is often an act of trying to create meaning and justice out of an unjust situation. Tears shed regularly. Yet, there is nothing I love more in the world than educating. This love arises from one source: the incredible children who I have the privilege of teaching, interacting and exploring the world with, and learning from every day. They are not, as many people who do not know the students I teach believe, the darkness that must be made lucid through education; rather, these brilliant individuals are the light yearning to make their way through the increasing darkness of the public school system.

Trevor Gardner teaches history and language arts at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco. He participated in the Asia Institute's 2003 study tour to Korea and Japan and our 2004 workshop on human rights in Asia. You can reach him at

View the complete Declaration on the Rights of the Child.
Visit the website of the UCLA Asia Institute's 2004 workshop for educators: "Human Rights in Your Curriculum: Case Studies from Asia"

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the UCLA Asia Institute.

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