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After ten years as a teacher, I was going to start teaching groups of teenagers for the first time. Up to this point, I had only taught adults, with a few teens in amongst the older students, but now I would have groups of exclusively teens in classes of around 15. Luckily for me I have good friends so they gave me loads of great advice (which you can read here on my blog).
I was looking forward to the challenge as I always enjoy a new experience and an opportunity to learn something new about teaching and myself as a teacher, and one year on, I can say I haven’t been disappointed. It’s been a very rewarding and sometimes challenging year, and I have definitely learned a lot about the kind of teacher I am, and I’m not. I’m now onto my thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth groups of teens (including one unexpected group of 11 and 12 year olds!) and I have learned a lot from them and with them. I hope it’s been as rewarding for some of them as it has for me!
But what exactly have I learned in that time? Well firstly…
- ...teenagers are definitely not children. When you are 15 or 16, the last thing you want is to be spoken to like a child. You want to be respected and listened to. You want your opinion to mean something. Essentially you want to be treated like an adult. So I never patronise them, I take their opinions seriously, which may mean that I will cautiously challenge them if I think they are wrong. I encourage debate and the sharing of ideas in a respectful and welcoming environment. I give them time and space to express themselves.
- That said, there are times when their behaviour won’t correspond with this. Sometimes they disappoint me and there will definitely always be individuals who do not behave in a way that I find appropriate. This has been the biggest learning curve for me and I’m still on it. If I’m honest, I don’t enjoy this aspect of teaching teenagers over adults, I find it gets in the way of what I really want to do, which is to teach. But mercifully, these incidents have been very rare.
- Following on from this, the other biggest change has been a huge increase in the amount of classroom management skills I have had to develop. Teaching adults, which I still do half the time, now feels like a relief compared to my teen groups. When you ask adults to pay attention, after a few seconds, they will. When you ask adults to look at the board, they will. If you ask adults to turn to page 32, they will. When you ask teens to do the same, some of them will, some won’t have taken the book out of their bag, some will have left the book at home, some will stare into space before looking at you and asking what they are doing, and some will need you to come over and tell them to open the book. So giving instructions has become much more important.
- And a huge part of this is getting their attention in the first place. This is probably where I’ve felt the biggest difference and I’ve really had to get used to the fact many of my students will happily have little muttered conversations between them and think that I can’t hear it when I can. This doesn’t only interfere with the giving of instructions, but even more crucially when getting class feedback. Many of my students speak quietly, and it’s difficult enough when they have to compete with the sound from the air conditioner and the projector, let alone other conversations. So if you are new to teaching teens, my advice is brush up on your classroom management skills.
- Whatever it is that was bothering me, I have found the best approach is to speak to them honestly about the issue, whether it’s as a group or individually. I have to remember that my students are at school, normally in an environment stricter than mine, for hours everyday. They are used to these kinds of conversations, even if I’m not.
- But it’s not all challenges, of course. There are many aspects that are very rewarding. They don’t love every activity I do with them, but when they do, they really go for it. When they do well, I’m really proud of them. And when they decide to share with me, it has become even more meaningful.
- Speaking of which, I have found that writing is one of the best ways to get to know them. When they are asked to write something personal without being ‘exposed’ in front of the class, they are happy to share their hopes, dreams and fears on paper. I think that this a very generous act and I feel touched that they are prepared to divulge this with me. Of course this work needs feedback on errors and language, but I have felt that responding to it as a person is equally important. I try to encourage, console, understand, give advice, whatever I think is appropriate. And I always try to recognise their creativity, hard work and effort. They deserve that.
- The final thing I have learned is not to generalise, which might seem strange after an article where I have done just that! People will talk about teenagers as if they are one big group with the same qualities when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of them are loud, some are quiet. Some are extroverted, some are introverted. Some are hard working, others not so much. As a teacher, we have to be ready to respond to the people in the room, whatever their age, and teenagers are no exception. They have a huge capacity to surprise you and confound you. If you are able to embrace the challenges and opportunities that teaching teenagers offers, you will find it immensely rewarding. I have.