Teaching teenagers: a nightmare or a challenge?

Hana profile pic  by Hana Tichá

As a mother of three boisterous youngsters (two of them in their late teens), I can attest to the fact that adolescence is probably the most critical period of human development. Generally, teenagers are considered to be moody, impulsive and self-centred. They are seen as technology addicts constantly tapping their smartphone screens. Headphones, once defined as a hardware device, are now officially part of a teenage body, the same as ears, eyes or hands. What’s even worse, teenagers behave like totally carefree creatures who don’t care a toss about school.

Why on earth would one want to get involved in teaching teenagers then?

Well, teaching teens is my everyday reality; I teach English to groups of learners aged 13-19 and I have done so for many years now. Over time, I have gained a decent amount of experience and collected enough data to fall into the trap of seeing myself as an expert on the Teaching Teens Issue. So, I might easily feel tempted to start throwing my valuable insights at the reader now.

I won’t. Instead, I’m going to present the results of a little survey I conducted for the sake of this article. I asked some of my students what they think it is like for a teacher to teach teenagers these days. Apart from their answers, I’m sharing a couple of my random, spontaneous notes – thoughts and ideas that first sprang to mind while I was going through their responses.

What do you think it is like for a teacher to teach teenagers these days?

Hana's post pic 1Lucy (16): It’s very hard to teach teens because they are strange people. They say and do strange things because they think they know everything about the world and life. My note: There’s no reason to despair; their view of the world might be a great topic for conversation classes.

Niki (16): It must be very difficult. We are tired most of the time because we have to wake up early. We’re bored and lazy. During the lessons, we talk to each other because we have a lot to say. But sometimes, when we are in a good mood, we’ve got some interesting ideas and we can be really nice and fun. Note: Why not turn their enthusiasm to our advantage? Let them converse about things they are genuinely interested in.

Veronika (16): When you teach teens, you should be careful about erotic puns and ambiguous meanings. Also, expecting someone to start focusing right in the morning is foolish. Note: It seems we’d better start creating an extensive bank of classroom warmers and icebreakers. Also, we should think twice before we introduce certain PARSNIP topics, i.e. taboo issues in English language teaching. Sometimes it might be safer to avoid some of them completely.

Hana's post pic 2Pavel (16): If I had to teach teenagers, I’d be angry all the time, especially if they didn’t pay attention. Note: We should remember that our students realize how hard teaching can be. This can help us build a good relationship with them.

Tom (16): Teaching teens must be fun because they are almost adults and so they make intelligent jokes. Note: This is what I love about teaching teens! It is so refreshing and energizing.

Anonymous (16): The biggest advantage is when the teacher has his/her own teenage kids. Note: I can’t but agree! However, sometimes I feel knowing less would be to the good.

Anonymous (19): The teachers have to deal with the fact that everything they do is seen as awkward. I think teachers are poor human beings! Note: It’s incredible how compassionate teenagers can be!

Anonymous (19): Teaching is like driving. Sometimes you make the right turn and the students pay attention and you are full of happiness. Then there are bad turns and the students are bored. Note: This metaphor only proves how exciting it is to teach young adults.

Anonymous (19): I appreciate today’s teachers. Note: So simple and telling. Teaching is worth the effort in the end.

Nikol (19): I think that teaching teenagers is like trying to force huge mountains to move. Note: Well, who says it’s easy?

As the teenage brain has not fully developed yet, it may sometimes be extremely difficult for us adults to understand what’s going on in those little heads. Despite the fact we were all once teenagers ourselves, it’s still hard for us to fully appreciate what it is like to be one these days. Nevertheless, I’m an optimist and I’m convinced that it all comes down to communication.

I believe that regardless of our prior assumptions the only way to discover how our students really feel is to ask them. And to get frank answers, we mustn’t be afraid to be open ourselves. I can’t see any reason for worrying about their potential reactions; the results of the survey make me hope that most of them will always be encouraging and pleasing, rather than rude or arrogant.


Teens 2.0

Pravita Indriatiby Pravita Indriati

I love teaching children. In the eight years that I had proudly been teaching young learners, being among children in class, singing, dancing, telling stories, and having fun with them had become my comfort zone. I was interested in early childhood education and spent a lot of time expanding my knowledge in this area. I could say that teaching English to young learners is my thing. However, two years ago I had to leave that comfort zone when I started teaching teenagers. Even though it was not the first time for me to work with this age group (I had previously taught teens for a short while), to be honest, I was a bit surprised to see how different they have become. This change has been a challenging experience for me, but I survived and learnt a lot on the matter from my Personal Learning Network and iTDi along the way. Now I would like to share some of my findings with you.

What makes working with teens challenging and different?

Teens are tricky.

Ten years ago the teenagers I taught were friendly and kind, always listened to what I had to say to them. I’ve found them to be so different now, rebellious and reluctant to communicate or study. One day I heard a bunch of students talking and laughing at me behind my back, which made me feel so frustrated. That was when I changed my perspective. Indeed, they are not kids anymore, they have reached the age when they think they are grown-up… but they aren’t quite yet. They want to be seen as adults – so I thought I should listen to them and be their friend. Trying to get to know them better helped me to understand the reasons behind their sometimes arrogant behaviour – they just want to be treated the same like us, adults.

Teens are tech-savvy.

Indrie's post pic 1I remember during the first year of my teaching career there was a boy who came up to me and talked animatedly about his favorite band, showed me their CD that he’d brought from home. Nowadays it’s not only music they’re up-to-date with but also technology, and social media in particular is the top trend for their age. They keep talking about their Instagram accounts, bragging about their love of Minecraft, discussing their favorite YouTubers whose updates they always follow. If we could be teachers who know about these passions, can talk about them (or even teach!), our students would then think, “My teacher is cool!”

Teens are unpredictable.

Expect the unexpected. We should realize that our teenage students will not always be happy and enthusiastic in our classes. Since their mood changes so quickly, we should be ready to respond to that. Personally, I try to think of ways to make the same activities we’ve done before even more interesting and engaging. As I noticed their interest in technology, I started bringing it into class as much as possible. We have played song-related games in class (hits from Top 40, of course), watched YouTube videos connected with the themes of our lessons, played educational online games, created projects using Lino, Instagram, and WordPress. To my surprise, these activities have given a tremendous boost to their interest in the lessons.

Teens are active.

Indrie's post pic 2There’s just no way to get them sit, listen, and write. Much like little kids, they have lots of energy and they’ll quickly get bored once they have to waste it at their desks. There have been classes when some of my students suddenly stood up from their chairs and moved around in the middle of my lesson! I realized that combining regular tasks with some kinesthetic activities is a good idea in a classroom full of teenagers. They love running dictation, racing games, scavenger hunt, or whatever activities get them moving while learning.

Finally, and this is my favorite part of teaching teenage students, they are so full of life. Teaching teens may sometimes mean teaching calm, quiet and obedient learners, but more often, they will be active, talkative, fun, and even weird. My students love to throw some jokes and tell funny stories, and then I listen and laugh with them. I think teenagers, more than any other group of learners, appreciate it when their teacher can join them in the fun, tell jokes, keep up with the trends, and generally be “in the know”. That’s the kind of teacher I am trying to be. In return, I ask them the favor of not giving me reasons to behave like an old and boring teacher that they don’t want to have and I don’t wish to be.