Click here to see the overview of this series, and links to other posts on the topic.
The ‘Marmite’ Group
Teenagers are probably the most divisive age group in teaching ELT. Many teachers tolerate teens without ever truly enjoying teaching them, while others actively dislike having to teach them at all. And some of us love them! To me, it is such a shame that not all teachers can see the joy of teaching adolescents. Teenagers can be the most energising group to teach, as they are going through such major changes in life and developing their personalities and perspectives.
This blog post aims to move us all a little closer to the positive end of the spectrum by looking at why teenagers can sometimes be so hard to love, and how we can cope with that.
Why are they just so infuriating?
This is a common complaint from teachers struggling to maintain discipline and a good rapport with their teenage learners. The answer lies in a mix of of brain development, personality and self-image.
The brain is still developing until at least the age of 24, and likely into our 30s. In teenagers, the rational areas of the brain dealing with judgement, self-regulation and conscious decision-making are underdeveloped in comparison to the emotional areas. While teenagers logically understand that their behaviour in any certain moment is not acceptable, the pull of risky, ‘fun’ behaviour can often overcome that logic.
Further to this, the dominance of this emotional side of their brain can make reading others’ emotions – both facial expressions and tone of voice – very difficult. This is why some learners may not respond to our tried and tested ‘teacher look’, or they may appear ignorant of the emotions their classmates may be, in our view, clearly expressing.
Teenage self image is closely related to their brain development. You have probably noticed those learners who try to get your attention through high performance, jumping to answer questions, or by acting out as the class clown or causing arguments. Conversely, there are those who try their absolute best to blend into the furniture. Different again are those students whose personality and attitude seems to shift with the wind.
Each of these emotional presentations could be a result of student reactions to things happening at home, school, with friends or simply having a bad day. Managing emotions and how to present them is a learning curve made harder by both brain development stages and hormonal changes. The social pressures of teenage life also cause problems of self image and resultant behavioural issues. There’s a fine balance to be found between being different and interesting, but not too different – and that’s tough even for adults to manage.
What can we do?
It’s very frustrating as a teacher to respond to these behaviours in a productive way, but we can actually use the teenage brain to our advantage.
The adolescent desire to take risks means that they can be far more confident language learners than many adults. They have an easier time experimenting with language and respond well to positive correction. This means they often enjoy task based learning with cycles of action and input, or project based learning for similar reasons. Try to move away from basic grammar presentations and switch up the style of your lessons where you can.
When giving feedback, keep it until the end of a speaking task, and try to ensure the language you select can be kept as anonymous as possible – this might mean changing a detail in the utterance, but shouldn’t alter the structure of the phrase. Ask learners how they could improve the sentences – not just by correcting grammar, but by switching up vocabulary to boost the level. They could also extend the phrases by adding in adjectives or adverbs, replacing Latinate verbs with phrasal verbs where appropriate, or combining two sentences using a relative clause. You can shift the focus to whatever you think is necessary to improve students’ communicative capabilities. They can do this in small groups, coming together in plenary to share ideas when they are confident in their ideas.
One major area to work on is building rapport and creating a positive classroom environment. The change has to come from us, the teachers, as it will not be student-led. Click here for more information and advice on building good rapport with learners.
Focus on the positives
It has been shown that positive reinforcement has a far better effect on behaviour and motivation than negative reinforcement. Teen students who, for whatever reason, are constantly receiving negative reinforcement – “why are you always late, you never listen, why can’t you just sit down, you never do your work, you are so rude” – are more likely to behave poorly. Of course we have to manage poor behaviour, but when learners feel they are being judged harshly, this can stimulate a ‘why bother if I’m just going to get told off anyway’ attitude.
Try to focus on the positives. If students do their homework, recognise that. If students manage to sit and quietly read for 5 minutes when they usually manage 2, praise them. When your student who tries to hide behind her hair gives an answer, tell her she’s done really well! Step by step, you should see progress.
Tune into your learners’ (and your) moods
The classroom is a dynamic environment. It’s constructed between you and your students, changing with your moods and development. As the adult in the room, it’s your responsibility to stay attentive to the mood of your learners. Are they acting weird? Are they hyperactive because they’ve had a pack of sweets in their break time, or are they hyperactive because they’re over tired? Are they near-silent zombies towards the end of the term? Awareness of this means building in a certain flexibility to your lessons, for example adding in some movement or taking it out, rearranging the structure of your lessons or altering the seating plan.
Equally, your own emotions enter the room with you, even if you manage to put on a good ‘game face’ in the classroom. It’s not a bad thing to let learners know you’re struggling, if it’s something you feel comfortable with. For example, over the winter I had a disaster with a 4:00am exploding boiler and a flooded flat. I went to work the next day and put a few phrases related to the incident on the board as follows:
read book late
bang on door
Learners then had to reconstruct the events of the night using a variety of past tenses. This helped with language, but also humanised me as a teacher to them and explained my bedraggled appearance and the low-key nature of the lesson itself.
Secure relationships are based on trust, safety and respect. To have a positive experience teaching teens and bring out the best in them, learners have to:
- Trust you to respect their boundaries
- Feel safe in your classroom, both physically and mentally
- Feel respected – both in their interests and personality. An introvert should not be expected to become an extrovert in a second language, for example.
It’s important to be firm but fair. Teens are highly sensitive to the concept of fairness, so this is a key tool in setting up the classroom to help you on your way to enjoying the time you have with them. There are many ways you could go about this, but it is essential to spend a little time going over your expectations of the learners. Make clear what is acceptable and what is not.
You could put up some rules on the wall and refer back to them when needed. This gives everyone a clear, visible reference point to help in times of bad behaviour, and provide praise when the learners are doing well. One option is to use a classroom contract where learners set five rules for themselves, and two for the teacher. Giving them the control over what the rules are is usually a welcome responsibility. This works well as a pyramid activity. You can put learners in small groups of four. They then combine into groups of eight and pick the best rules from the two groups. This pairing of groups continues until you have one final class contract document, which you all sign and display in a prominent place.
I have never had any learners seriously try to come up with obstructive or silly rules. The class always comes together to produce sensible, interesting rules which tell you a lot about them and what they think makes a positive learning environment.
Always remember that however frustrating teenagers can be, that is the exact same reason why they can also be so dynamic, fun and interesting. Most of the time teenage acting out is something they are fully aware of doing, and they may be trying to get a rise out of you. Sticking to your guns, trying to stay calm and following your agreed rules and procedures should reduce the frequency for this kind of outburst. Try to stay positive and don’t forget to reward good behavioural examples. Most importantly of all, try to embrace the fun times! Get them to demonstrate the latest dance craze to you; let them explain the hilarious meme they found in their L1 to you in English, and so on.
Some classes will be more of a challenge than others, as in every age group. Thinking of your learners as individuals, rather than ‘that awful teenage group’ is often enough to cause a shift in your own attitude that learners – with their emotional brains – can sense.
Let me know if you’ve had a journey leading you to enjoy the experience of teaching teenagers – what did you you to move into a more positive space?