Have you ever contemplated the reasons behind the cliché that teaching teenage classes is the most challenging job? And if so, do you think it could be the lack of maturity connected with a certain degree of unpredictability and unstableness that is so daunting for us teachers? But what is it exactly that raises a red flag whenever we hear we’ve been assigned a new group of teenagers? Let me have a look at the issue from my own experience.
I’ve been an English teacher for more than 20 years and I have experience in teaching all age groups – in the state as well as the private sector of education. In hindsight, and from a perspective of a non-native teacher of English, I’d say that teaching adults was the least challenging of all and I strongly recommend that any newbie teacher whose mother tongue is not English start their career in an adult-learner classroom (preferably with a pre-intermediate group of learners). From a certain viewpoint, teaching young learners may also appear relatively easy since it doesn’t require so much language knowledge as teaching, say, an advanced class of adult learners. However, it does require an enormous amount of patience, creativity, and enthusiasm. When teaching teenagers, you’ll need to have all the qualities above plus a really thick skin, and thus, due to and despite all the challenges you may have to overcome as a teacher, I call it the proverbial icing on the cake.
When teaching teens, you’ll always need to keep your eyes peeled plus you’ll need to watch your back, so to speak. I’m not implying that you can get physically hurt or something; I’m just saying that teenagers will simply do what they need to do whenever you look away. So while you are busy scribbling something very important on the board, a teenager will be multitasking: responding to messages on WhatsApp, liking pictures on Instagram and posting comments on Facebook. And if you happen to raise your eyebrows over their behavior, they will quickly point out, looking slightly offended, that they were just checking the time for god’s sake. These days, they’ve invented a new excuse: I’m checking the EduPage (the new electronic system my school started using recently). Needless to say, it won’t be helpful to prolong the discussion by pointing at the giant clock hanging on the wall right in front of them or telling them that there’s no need to check Edupage during the lesson. I assume that small kids don’t yet have the guts to willingly break rules or argue with you and that adults don’t see the point in wasting the precious and often expensive classroom time.
Also, while kids don’t see your weaknesses as real weaknesses and adults are willing to overlook them (or at least are considerate enough to pretend not to see them), teenagers will give you a hard time once they discover your weak spots – especially if you are the one who finds pleasure in targeting theirs. So the best strategy is to avoid all kinds of harsh criticism (this may even refer to explicit error correction in front of the class) and once you make a mistake yourself, simply admit to being wrong. In my context, if a student points to a mistake I have made, I openly appreciate their language awareness as well as their courage.
While adult learners will be happy if you devote the lesson to something they find useful, such as grammar explanations, and YLs will immediately rejoice any time you ask them to jump up and sing a song, your teenage class will in both cases award you with a slightly indifferent look. In the worst case scenario, they’ll refuse to cooperate or even boycott the activity completely. The problem with teenage classes is that it’s not easy to win their attention and/or enthusiasm and if you finally make it, it’s often a matter of luck rather than a planned strategy. In other words, there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe or manual for motivating a teenage learner. Sometimes you’re lucky and you manage to tune in. Sometimes they will even tell you what they’d like to do. Be careful, though, you may hear requests such as Let’s go home. Let’s go for an ice cream. Let’s sleep. Let’s cancel the lesson completely. You get what you ask for. While adults may feel in the same mood, they will rarely say such things out loud. And you’ll obviously wrap any kid around your finger once you suggest an engaging, fun activity.
Every teaching manual will tell you that the best approach to teaching any subject is to create opportunities for personalized learning. Such learning is driven by learner interests and learning objectives, approaches, content, and tools are tailored and optimized for each learner. Based on my experience, people usually consider their own thoughts and experiences to be their favorite topic of conversation so we can assume that one of our students’ main interests is to talk about themselves. After all, it’s a subject in which they’re an expert. This is undoubtedly true for most teenagers, except that they are not exactly over the moon if you ask them to talk about themselves with you, let alone in front of the whole class. Mind you, their reluctance to share ideas doesn’t necessarily have to relate to their language confidence. Based on my experience, if you really want your teenage learners to practice speaking, let them work in pairs or small groups first. That’s where they feel safe.
This brings me to the topic of monitoring; do monitor pair and group work but do so very sensitively. A teenage learner may immediately change the subject or stop talking completely if you approach them and start listening closely. It’s not always a good idea to chip in either. Show your interest in a different way. No matter how friendly you are, there’ll always be this imaginary gap between the adult and the teenage world. They have their secrets. This imaginary barricade is no longer there between you and your adult learners, so although they might not be willing to talk about stuff which they consider too personal, they won’t feel the need to hide from you the things they share with each other. And young learners don’t yet feel the omnipresent threat of peer pressure and embarrassment so they are likely to express their ideas freely.
There’s one constant which you can always hold on to (and you’d better be mentally prepared). If you happen to teach the first lesson in the morning, consider yourself lucky if your teenage students show up on time (or show up at all). In any case, don’t expect them to engage in any activity whatsoever – mental or physical. Simply accept the fact that at times, it will feel like you’re the only person in the room. Contrarily, adult learners are likely to be full of beans in the morning and they’ll probably feel tired later in the day, after a busy day at work. And as most small kids still go to bed at sensible times and are practically full of energy all day long, none of the above is a likely scenario for a group of young learners.
Apart from constantly feeling exhausted from their nocturnal activities (yes, they are, in fact, nocturnal species) teenagers, unless they are super-motivated language learners, always want to be some place other than the classroom – at least most of the time. They’d rather be outside with their peers, in the corridor chatting with each other, in their room playing PC games or watching a movie, you name it. I think it is this natural and understandable inability to appreciate the present moment while in the classroom which is to blame for their overall negative attitude to school and which is so annoying for us teachers. The best we can do is acknowledge the fact but never surrender completely. We must keep in mind that there are some lighter moments and things will sooner or later change to the good.
Earlier I said that there’s no simple approach to teaching teenagers. Your meticulously planned lesson may well be a disaster or an ultimate success. You can never tell in advance. But I believe there’s one thing over which you do have control: it’s your attitude towards this somewhat infamous type of learner. The fact that you’ve been assigned a group of teenagers means you’ve moved you up to the highest level in the game. Now it’s primarily about your perspective, not just the methods, strategies and techniques you apply in the classroom (those methods you once mastered when teaching a group of well-behaved and perfectly predictable pre-intermediate adult learners and which you later refined with a bunch of boisterous but always enthusiastic young learners). Remember that teenagers can sense your attitude from miles away and they’ll always act correspondingly; negativity breeds opposition and pretense breeds contempt. In other words, they will always strike back. So it may sound like an old cliché but what they need most is a bit of freedom and respect. Good luck and enjoy the game!