Pedagogy of Delinquency

Somebody asked me to write about the pedagogy of teaching kids with problems of juvenile delinquency, extreme behavioral issues, history of arrests, gang affiliations, etc. I don’t think this will be of any interest to the readers of the blog but since I’m writing about it anyway, I’m just going to publish it here for just in case.

There are several foundational principles to the pedagogy of delinquency.

  1. Respect.

These are kids who value respect like nothing else in the world because it’s so rare in their world. Respect yourself, respect them, and accept nothing but respect towards yourself. There can be no comments on their attire, no requests to remove sunglasses, hoodies, head-wear, jewelry, headphones, etc. No comments on tats or piercings. Don’t try to impose authority until you have earned it. Don’t raise your voice even if you are at MOMA with them and they are swinging on the chandeliers (true story). Be serious, professional, do not condescend. Don’t show emotion because these are kids from emotionally chaotic environments who see exhibitions of strong emotion (whether negative or positive) as threatening. Inform yourself about their culture before beginning to teach. There are certain words and phrases, certain gestures, etc that are out of the question. Speak at a lower volume than you usually would but don’t mumble.

2. Teaching persona.

The best way to go, especially if you are not very experienced, is the most buttoned-up persona you can muster. If you have a naturally giggly, smiley, bubbly persona, can it. This is not a crowd that is well-disposed to respect a class clown. No degree of familiarity is OK. Forget that you have a first name. In a Latino classroom, use usted. In the English-speaking classroom, it’s Mr and Ms. Don’t try to be “one of them” because it’s pathetic and you can’t afford to be pathetic. Don’t dress like the students do and don’t try to share how much you appreciate the music they listen to, etc. A three-piece suit for a male teacher and a business suit for a female teacher. If you are a middle-aged college professor with a bunch of degrees from fancy schools, don’t pretend to be somebody else. Be who you are. These kids can see through a fake in a second because it’s their survival skill. Don’t be a con. They will respect an old fuddy-duddy in glasses but not a con.

3. The past does not exist.

Nobody’s past gets discussed or mentioned or alluded to in the classroom.

“Maestra, do you know that Edgardo was arrested three times last month?” and stuff like that gets shut down immediately. The correct answer is, “I know nothing of the kind and I’m not interested” in the most severe tone you can muster but at a low volume.

4. Trust and responsibility.

Since the past doesn’t exist, everybody in the classroom is an upstanding individual with a stellar reputation.

“Pepe, here is some cash, please go get pretzels for everybody from the gentleman around the corner.”

“But, Maestra, Pepe is a thief! He got in trouble many times at school for stealing. . .”

“That is not true. Pepe is a very responsible, reliable person. Go on, Pepe.”

Pepe brings the pretzels and the change, and I dump it in the purse without counting.

“Joaquin, I have to step out of the classroom for 20 minutes. Make sure the little ones do the assignment and write it out on clean sheets of paper. Everybody, Joaquin is the teacher while I’m away.”

After that, Joaquin, who never completed a single assignment before, hands in a perfect assignment every class. His homeroom teacher thought I was hallucinating when I told her how great he was.

Years later, Pepe emailed me to say he got into law school. Joaquin wrote to say he graduated from community college and was planning to be a teacher.

I honestly never smiled less in my entire life than in that classroom. And I taught exactly like I would a group of graduate students at an Ivy League school.

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7 thoughts on “Pedagogy of Delinquency”

  1. This is brilliant! And some of these techniques are useful outside of the classroom. Especially the one about not pretending to be ‘one of them’, being yourself but also creating an atmosphere of respect. This is exactly the tact I take when talking to people from a different class background than mine.

    Using respectful pronouns in languages that support them works wonders.

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    1. Thank you. I have extensive training in this and a theoretical background from here to the moon. There are all these books by folks who went to teach at “inner-city schools” and ran away in horror. But they didn’t even try to prepare and learn how to engage with these kids.

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    1. It’s very different than teaching college students, for instance. I joke around and have a very giggly persona in class when I teach college. I tell funny stories about my life a lot. But this is a different crowd.

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