By Kevin Stein
I’ve been a high school English teacher for 10 out of the past 15 years. Before that I spent five years as a coordinator of an outreach program for runaway youth in Chicago. I wish that those years of experience added up to a deep understanding of teenagers that I could share with you, a key to unlocking the secret fears and longings that sometimes hide behind a sullen look or a blank face of boredom. But honestly, I probably understand my teenage students less than when I first started working with ‘the youth’. Probably because the older I get, the less I remember about what made the daily grind of my junior high school and high school days difficult. So instead of insights into what teenagers are or are not like, I thought I would share 4 things I try to keep in mind that my 45-year-old perspective doesn’t get in the way of communicating with my students.
1. Students have to go to school every day, but there are days they would rather be somewhere else. Sometimes my students work late at a part-time job to help their family make ends meet. Probably the last thing they want to be doing is sitting at a desk in school the next day and trying to keep their eyes open. So instead of just acting like my students are the problem because they aren’t in the perfect place to study on any given day, I ask them the following 3 questions: 1) What time did you get to bed last night? 2) Did you eat breakfast today? 3) If you weren’t in school right now, what would you be doing? And I find that if I ask these questions, instead of nudging my students awake, or worse, scolding them for not participating, they usually will answer the questions and give a little bit more effort in class. Because, “I’m interested in what’s going on with you” is a much more motivating sentiment than, “I’m upset with you.”
2. Just because a student isn’t noticeably joining in an activity, doesn’t mean they aren’t participating. Sometimes I see one of my students just kind of hanging back in a group activity and I get the itch to jump in and try and get them more involved in what’s going on. But if I step back and watch, I often notice that while those students might not be speaking or writing, they are often listening, nodding, and making space for others to lead. Instead of feeling that group work requires a certain set of ideal behaviors, I try and remind myself that there’s no way for me to know what role a student is playing in a group of teenagers unless I spend time carefully observing what’s going on.
3. Tests totally suck. And I mean that in a very technical way. For the most part, tests suck the joy out of learning, the curiosity out of a topic, and the energy out of my students. I often try to use alternative testing to assess my students. In any case, regardless of what kind of testing I do, my students have at least 12 years of school experience to trigger feelings that at the end of each semester they will be standing on the lip of a black hole of giant-test-suckiness which is going to pull all the color right out of their lives. That means that in my classrooms I have to keep the focus on learning. I have to highlight the small gains made in each and every class. I have to find a way to make class about learning and NOT about the test. Even then, my students are going to have to suffer through mid-term and final exams, and the least I can do is empathize with how difficult that can be.
4. Time is relative. When I am sitting down and doing career guidance or holding a student-parent-teacher conference, and feel a wave of anxiety about how hard a student will have to work to prepare for a university entry test three years down the road, I need to take a deep breath and give myself a time out. Three years to a sixteen-year-old is the distant future, it is the glowing umbrellas in Blade Runner, it is unknowable. Three years for me sometimes feels like it might arrive the day after tomorrow. But how I feel isn’t really the point of counseling a student about their future. Before I can talk about a student’s future, I need to make sure that I am listening to and understanding the story of their here and now.
I have a friend, Devon, who manages the PR and recruitment division of a large language school here in Osaka. Up until five years ago, he had been a classroom teacher. Sometimes when we have coffee together, he reminisces about his time in the classroom. When I asked him why he had stopped teaching, he said, “One day, I was teaching a unit on hobbies and likes and dislikes, and I suddenly felt like there was this huge gap between me and my students.” He said that he just couldn’t find a way to personally connect with his students the way he had in the past. He didn’t think it was anything he had done which had led to the gap. It was just the result of growing and changing and ending up in a place very different from the one he had been in when he started teaching.
The older I get, the more I understand what Devon meant, how he felt on that day. For me, though, there is no job I would rather do and nowhere I would rather spend my workdays than in a classroom. If that means I need to spend a few extra minutes trying to peer over the wall of my 15 years-experience to see my students a bit more clearly, then that is what I will happily do. Because there are no special keys to help us understand our teenage students, just as there are no magic keys to unlock the feelings and dreams of any of the people we talk with throughout our day. The best we can do is to keep in mind that the people in front of us are living their own stories, in their own way. Making real connections with the people around begins not with our own expectations of how things should be, but with watching, listening, and noticing the small moments of how things are now.