Taming teens

By Amy Gowers

“Why don’t my teenagers talk to me when I ask them questions?”

“My teen class makes me nervous.”

“I can’t teach teens; I don’t know how to speak to them.”

These are just some of the things I’ve overheard in the staffrooms and kitchens of my different schools. Teen classes seem to create dread in the timetables of even seemingly confident and seasoned teachers. The un-understandable teens with their unflinching stare and weird lingo can be hard to handle. Adults usually want to learn and VYLs and YLs are still young enough to find learning fun but teens are typically only there because their parents have forced them. They are often very tired by the time they get to the English classroom, both mentally and physically, from a full day of normal schooling, some even doing other extra-curricular like sports or creative classes.

Despite all this, teens, as the title suggests, can be tamed. To make this article as useful as possible, I asked previous and current colleagues to send me questions they have about working with teenagers and have attempted to answer them as realistically as possible.

1) How to build rapport in general when you feel like you don’t understand them at all and how can you talk to teens when you don’t understand the language they actually use?

This is a big one, so let’s break it down:

1.1) As wise Dumbledore once said; ‘fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.’ It worked for Voldemort but it also works for teenagers. Realising that teenagers are just more emotional, (sometimes) shorter adults is the first step to tackling a teen class. They aren’t another species; they are teenagers and no matter how long ago it was, you were one too at one time.

Teachers often go in one of two directions when teaching teens. The first is to treat them like children; although teens may be technically classed as YLs in some schools, they do have to be approached differently. Taking away their autonomy and trying to assert too much power in the classroom is a recipe for disaster. Teenagers, depending on their age, are on the cusp of adulthood; they have opinions, preferences, and very valid pressures, and diminishing these will hinder your relationship with them.

The second response is to treat them too much like adults; not giving them room to push boundaries, having too high expectations surrounding classroom behaviour and not giving them enough “downtime” will also negatively impact your classroom atmosphere and your rapport. The simplest and most direct advice in response to this question is to be relaxed, for example, by welcoming them as they walk into the room and asking them how their day was. It is very possible that some won’t respond or will only respond in very short answers. If this is the case, don’t take it personally. They aren’t dismissing you because they don’t like you; they’re dismissing you, likely, because they’re tired and can’t be bothered. Nevertheless, keep the greetings light and upbeat before moving onto the lesson.

Rapport isn’t just about laughing and joking with the students. It’s also about encouraging them to listen to instructions, engage in conversation and respect the space, the teacher, and the other students.

You’re there to be their teacher not their friend. You don’t always need to have things in common and you don’t need to understand them. You just need to help them learn things and create a safe environment in which to do so. If you can see your classroom reflected in the above sentence, then rest easy. The most important aspect of rapport is respect and teenagers respect consistency, fairness and honestly. Just be their teacher first and foremost, everything else will follow.

1.2) Now let’s tackle the minefield that is teenage language. Teens use a lot of slang; we did as teens, other teachers did and teens in the future will too. If, like me, you tend to use a lot of slang words anyway and spend quite a bit of time on social media then you’ll be aware of most of it and use some of it. However, if you aren’t fluent in 2019 slang then my one piece of critical advice is: JUST DON’T DO IT. There is nothing more off-putting to a teen than a teacher trying to be ‘cool’ by over-using or incorrectly using vocabulary that teens use on a daily basis. They are used to not using slang with the other adults in their life so it won’t be a problem for them. If you’re genuinely interested in learning then plan it as a spare lesson: ask the students to become the teachers and teach you how to use the vocabulary. Hopefully they’ll recognise how language is taught to them and emulate your drilling activities. They will delight in passing on the information as it will give them control and it makes a nice change from the status quo.

2) What if I don’t know anything about pop culture or what they’re into and I don’t want it seeming like a desperate attempt to get on their level?

Pop culture is all around us; on social media, the internet, the news, songs and films so it would be difficult to have no knowledge of any pop culture. One of the main reasons why pop culture and social media are so difficult to keep up with is because they are constantly changing. What was popular yesterday might not be popular tomorrow and it definitely won’t be popular in a few months. It would be easy to direct you to a handy website which has all the up to date references on it but unfortunately, I can’t. The minute the articles are published teens have moved on; articles aren’t up to date, especially those written for parent magazines.

Most teens don’t fit into the nice, generalised box that people often try to sandwich them into. Most teenagers aren’t rude for no reason, most teenagers have passions and interests and most teenagers want to become something of a success as they get older. This means that it’s incredibly hard to guess what a teenager is ‘into’. It isn’t unheard of to have a gamer, a postmodern feminist and an LGBTQ+ activist in the same class so don’t assume that just because they’re teenagers you can’t relate. I have found that teenagers having access to the same information and input as adults, through social media and the internet, means they may have more mature and adult interests. However, if you don’t know how to pronounce ‘meme,’ you think Tik Tok is the sound of a clock and you’re sure ‘thank you, next’ is what a shop assistant says at the till then maybe a quick internet search wouldn’t go amiss. Another idea is to keep a language journal, just like we encourage students to keep: listen out for new words or pop culture references, note them down, and Google them after the class.

3) How can you get teens back if you have a bad start to a year, where routines and discipline are concerned?

Routines are just as important for teens as they are for younger learns. Although it’s ideal to start routines from the start, this is isn’t always the case but fear not. Sure, it’s difficult to regain discipline but it isn’t impossible, and perseverance is key. The students most likely won’t like the changes as it’ll mean they will have to become responsible for their own behaviour, so start small. Introduce routines one at a time. We want things to change but if there’s too much change at once, the teenagers will react negatively and this may hinder the process even further. Start small; for example, set up the class in a particular way, finish for break in the same way or even rearrange the classroom space to limit unwanted behaviour. Before the students know it, they’ll be following routines and you’ll be regaining control.

4) What happens if half of the group refuse to talk to the other half? Especially boys/girls.

Birds of a feather stick together. It’s quite common in all classes, perhaps barring VYLs, to see the males and females separating themselves. If there are two big tables, the females will tend to all sit on one and the males all on another. Although this might be difficult to rectify in an adult classroom, it can be done easily in a teen classroom through employing a variety of interaction patterns. Get into the habit of switching groups or partners as often as possible, perhaps even every activity. Reassure the students that the activity will only be for 4 or 5 minutes and then they can go back to their seats. They’ll probably be reluctant at first but perseverance is key, along with praising them when they work with a new partner. They’ll soon get into the habit.

5) What should I do if teens start to ostracise one or two members of the group? Or if I notice bullying?

It can sometimes be difficult to notice bullying in classroom due to the language barrier but keep an eye and ear out for anything out of the ordinary, for example, if any student is reluctant to sit with or work with a particular person or if they have become quiet. Students will often sit on their own during break time and play on their phones so don’t assume that this means bullying.

If it is the case, however, a wider conversation is needed so seek advice from your management team. In the meantime, keep the offending parties apart and try to keep the students occupied. Having their attention trained on you or their work will reduce the opportunities they have to bully or ostracise another student.

It’s worth keeping in mind that all teenagers are different and so is every teacher. Although these solutions may work for me and for my settings, they may not for yours. Take them, consider them but most importantly, adapt them to your settings. These tips aren’t one size fits all but who knows, maybe they’ll help you put your best foot forward when it comes to taming your teens.

Author's bio: Amy Gowers has been teaching for over five years and is passionate about YLs, VYLS and Teens. She has recently been approved as an IHCYLT Tutor, where she hopes to use her experience to help other teachers develop. Amy can be contacted through her Facebook page Amy EFL, her Instagram account Amy.EnglishLanguage2019, or her blog AmyEnglishLanguage.home.blog