The final thoughts :Working with Teenagers to Build Success – Part 2



              Continuing  the previous post, let's deepen and conclude our reflections upon the challenge of teaching teenagers. 

              Teenagers have a greater learning potential than that of young children but they are considerably more difficult to motivate and manage. It also takes longer to build a trusting relationship with a teenager, but once a teacher finds the correct balance of respect and authority, teaching teenagers can be a rewarding, and fun-filled experience. 

         There are several reasons why it seems to be so difficult to deal with teenagers. At this age, dealing with all the physical changes and psychological pressures of adolescence can seem overwhelming. As they journey through puberty, criticism, academic, athletic and peer pressures, dating challenges, hormonal changes and a host of body concerns mixed with their own search for self cause many teens to struggle with self-esteem issues which may affect their lives for a long period of time. 

Photo from ELTPics

Teenagers often seem so cool, but deep inside they are just scared human beings who are going through a moment of transition – and a very difficult one at that. They put on masks and put up walls to hide their true feelings. They will attack you because they feel threatened by the world at large, not necessarily by you, the teacher. 

I took the picture below last Saturday, 1st June,  when, in São Paulo, I visited a museum called Pinacoteca.  

Photo by Roseli Serra -São Paulo June 2013

In a room full of traditional oil paintings full of adults (most of them middle-aged people) I  suddenly noticed these four girls. At first sight I thought they were ready for a party.  A few minutes later, lots of people, including my husband and daughter,   approached them and to our surprise they said: "This is our fashion style. It's the way we believe we should dress, like Lolitas (probably  a mention to Wladimir Nabokov's character Lolita  so that people pay attention to us. After all, we are different, aren't we? Interestingly, one of them was carrying a book ( hung as if it was a bag), and I happened to notice it was a beautiful edition of " Alice in Wonderland" written by Lewis Carroll .   

There's absolutely nothing wrong with the way they chose to dress. Not at all! On the contrary, it's nice, cool and beautiful! In a follow up conversation they said to be shy girls.  They cannot deal with so much  youth , creativity and beauty and then they hide their feelings by wearing different clothes as masks . It then made me reflect a lot about how tough must be to face adolescence nowadays. Perhaps it is even tougher than 35 years ago when I was at the age of 15.

        For ages teens have tried to call the world's attention either by their attitudes or dress code . Can you not sense the fear behind their masks ? In order to overcome their fears, teenagers need to publicly vent whatever issues are bothering them, and the educational system should be open to that.

I strongly believe that teachers need to be trained to listen to their students in a neutral way (very much like a psychoanalyst would). This means our role as teachers is not to convince teenage students to see things from our perspective but rather to allow students to form their own, guided opinions. We are not in the classroom to show students we are right and they are wrong. Ultimately, what we should be trying to do is to discuss a subject from as wide a perspective as possible.


As a corollary of the above, if one of your teenagers decides to “put up a fight”, don’t take it personally. Remember that his/her anger is not likely to be directed at you personally. Think of Alice in Wonderland being attacked by the Queen of Hearts: “Off with their heads.” It’s not usually as bad as that. Unfortunately, you represent the establishment and could be seen as one of the expanders of the horrors of the status quo. (You’re right: the classroom is like Wonderland at times.) My tip here is – don’t even try and confront him/her in front of his/her peers. Talk to him/her after the lesson. Give him/her your unconditional support at this difficult time. (Then “lose it” with your shrink later!).


Even if you often find your teenage students’ attitudes to be childish, give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as “near-adults”.  In other words, try not to be too condescending towards them. Condescension is often read as an attitude of superiority and we all know how much teenagers hate that. To be honest, I don’t blame them for that, do you? Remember - your tone of voice will be particularly important here. Try not to sound as if you know better.
Allow them to surprise you. Teenagers will rise or fall according to our expectations, so if you intend to pre-judge them, assume then that they will live up to your highest expectations! To see them soar is total bliss.

SHARING THE FLOOR             

  Photo from ELTPics by Roseli Serra -Rome- May 2012 

         Teenagers are generally considered difficult to motivate. In our desperate urge to make ourselves popular and win teenagers over, we teachers tend to hand over ownership of content of extra materials entirely to them. I don’t personally subscribe to that point of view. Giving teenagers ownership is indispensable as long as the teacher’s own sense of ownership is not diminished because of that. Negotiate your ownership rights carefully with them. I am convinced that teenagers (like children) are willing to expose themselves to the excitement of learning and discovery provided that teachers have managed to establish a classroom culture of mutual trust and constant negotiation of boundaries. As a matter of fact, with mutual trust, respect and goodwill, almost anything becomes possible!

      Having taught teenagers for a long time, I noticed some peculiarities about them and my pieces of advice (reminders, actually) based on my own experience are:

 Be flexible, firm, coherent, friendly, do not be over-sensitive (they are not against you). Remember that shouting at SS will make you weaker. Don’t take things personally, SS may have had bad experiences in the past and you are the nearest target. 
 Teenagers crave to authenticity and " real people". A teacher pretending to be someone else who he feels may impress teenagers will be spotted in a second and lose respect of his class even quicker. 
  Avoid personal confrontation in front of the others. Talk to the disruptive student one-to-one after the class.
      Maintain calmness in the face of aggression or rudeness.
      Encourage them to work as a group (adolescents love having the feeling of  “being part of a tribe”)
      See that pedagogical content is not dissociated from group dynamic.
      Connect language to their own lives and value their opinions (Take them seriously).
      Encourage SS to learn not only from you but from their classmates,  books and all the outside world available for them , including the web
      Encourage SS to listen to each other (don’t keep echoing your SS).
      Talk about personal experiences (successes, failures).
      Make contact with them.
      Try out different activities.
      Get into their world of interests and emotions.
      Encourage them to ask questions and link answers to real life.


When things get a little rough with your teenage students, I urge you to remember some of my thoughts on the matter.  If things get totally out of hand, do not fall into total despair. Simply invoke the Bard or remember his words in “As You Like It ,   a Shakespearean  comedy: 

Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head; And this our life exempt from public haunt finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything.

Shakespeare is definitely hip – not even a grumpy teenager will have the courage to deny that! 

Enjoy your teaching! 

  1. HARP,  Richard -  The Effective Rapport .  Edimburg 2000
  1. PARROT, Martin – Tasks for Language Teachers – CUP  2005 
  2. Puctta, Hebert - Teaching Teenagers: Model Activity Sequences for Humanistic Language Learning, United Kingdom, Longman, 1993.
  3. SERRA, Roseli – What Teenagers Want – workshop presented at the British Council – Summer Course, February 2007. 



Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you :)
( I would just like to mention that Lolita style comes from the japanese lolita fashion and it's a whole fashion movement in Japan :) )

Roseli Serra said...

Thank you for letting me know about this fashion. It's nice to learn from the others. Thank you for sharing!

School System Occupational Therapist in Virginia said...

thanks for your insight. As a school-based occupational therapist I work with lots of teens who have significant intellectual disabilities or autism. Thankfully, my personal children were very tolerant of me during their teen years.

Chris Bohlander said...

Working with teenagers can be challenging for those from our generation (I was 15 37 years ago) but it is the most important work we do. Creating an environment that exemplifies mutual trust, respect for others and goodwill can be quite empowering for everyone involved. I try to do this with my teaching and when we fall short, it is important to have the courage to apologize or demonstrate forgiveness. If teens can co-create this in the classroom, hopefully, they can bring this to other areas of their lives as well. Thanks for the wonderfully thoughtful post Roseli.

Kli Kli said...

Good stuff. I like the set up of related, quirky images to your writing.

Cecília Krug said...

Thanks so much for sharing so many good and nice ideas!

Gem said...

I really love these two posts and agree with most (actually probably all!) of what you say. I especially agree that people are too quick to criticise teens when really they just need to be given a chance and lots of patience. I've had a great time teaching teens for the past 2 years, despite not expecting to!
Thanks for all your great tips.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Roseli, for taking your time to share these valuable thoughts here. I started teaching teenagers only recently and your tips, your insights, the wisdom you share here is extremely valuable for me (and hence to my students as well!)
Looking forward to your future posts and so glad to learn from you!

justine rehan said...

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Lorena Morato said...

Great points and very useful!! I have taught teenagers for years and we have to keep calm and firm in many situations. Take things personally, as you said, is worse. In my point of view, I do believe that dealing with teenagers is rewarding, but tiring and difficult sometimes. If you don't get involved in their world and your own world as a teacher, you might get lost during your classes and also in your teaching goals. :-)

Roseli Serra said...

Dear Lorena,

Thank you very much for your comments and wise words. I totally agree with you.


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