When I introduce myself as a secondary school teacher, I am often greeted with, ‘how do you do it?’ Or, ‘teens are hard work’. And, my favourite, ‘I’d take primary any day’. My response would very often be, ‘teens are so funny, you just have to learn to listen and get along with them.’
Over my relatively short career as a teacher (10 years) teenagers have taught me more about life than any adult conversation I’ve had to engage in at a dinner party. The most important skill I’ve learned? How to listen, empathise, be patient and laugh.
My students would often say to me, ‘miss, you just get it.’ In order to understand and communicate effectively with a teenager, you have to learn to ‘get it’. The big question, though, what does that even mean?
I’m no expert (yes, we must now caveat everything in the digital world), but I’ve learned a lot over my years in education and I continue to as I work with students today. Here are a few lessons (and mistakes), which may help you listen and communicate effectively with teenagers too:
Don’t start a teenage relationship with limiting rules
Limiting rules, in my opinion, are your ‘must nots’, ‘cannots’ and everyone’s favourite, ‘I forbid it’. All of these phrases have the potential to put a student in a box they don’t want to be in - and can also be isolating and non-inclusive, too. By extension, in the context of the classroom or the living room, these limiting and in some ways claustrophobic rules presuppose that a teenager is going to do something ‘wrong’ before they’ve even had a chance to breathe, or tell you anything about themselves. From experience, (and again, my opinion) I’ve found they encourage testing and stubborn behaviour and work to widen the gap adults often find in relationships with teens.
From experience, these rules (you must not go to the toilet during a lesson; you can only eat in designated areas; you must raise your hand before speaking…a few examples) do not have the desired impact in creating meaningful relationships with teenagers.
I’m not saying this etiquette cannot or should not be taught; I’m saying there are other ways to teach students respectful principles whilst developing great relationships with teenagers.
Start with boundaries and non-negotiables
There is a difference between boundaries and rules. Boundaries help set up healthy, safe and liberating relationships.
Thanks to our primary colleagues, students usually get the gist of how to ‘be’ in a classroom. Yes, they might test you or forget every now and again, and that’s where boundaries help.
Boundaries can come in the form of what we might call in many relationships, our non- negotiables. A non-negotiable usually in some way shape or form denotes respect for one another. In the latter half of my career as a teacher, I realised my healthy relationships weren’t down to rules, but healthy boundaries and non-negotiables.
My students would often ask me, ‘what winds you up, Miss?’ Usually, because anytime I’d try to have a go at them I’d end up laughing at the sound of my own voice and my classroom would end up in comical disarray. I realised this question really helped me outline boundaries in my classroom:
don’t be rude, hurt someone else’s feelings, especially intentionally.
Respect everyone and listen to everyone
Learn to apologise, sincerely
Don’t get me wrong, my classroom was far from perfection and I’m pretty sure some of my ex students (including me) have some uncomfortable memories of our relationships and lessons. You can’t get along with everyone, but you can listen, respectfully agree and disagree, and be honest with each other. And, your classroom will develop day by day, year by year. So far, my best year of teaching is my most recent experience - and that’s how I want it to always be.
Answer the question, ‘why?’
The answers I detest to this question: ‘it is how it is’ and ‘because I said so’. Here’s a quick lesson: if you answer questions like this, stop. It’s toxic. Obviously, teenagers can push buttons, but do your best to somehow avoid these answers. They don’t support learning, progress, change or development.
We sometimes forget as adults that teenagers are impressionable and they’re also experiencing things for the very first time - things we as adults have experienced multiple times. They’re also growing up in a completely different generation, and the digital, globally connected and what I think is fast becoming an age of speculation and disruption, is not one to underestimate.
Some of my students would ask me some pretty uncomfortable questions and sometimes I knew they were doing it to test me: not in a malicious way, but to get to know me. Whether those questions were about religion, society, the necessity of Shakespeare, race, school rules, university, purpose, poetry, politics, gender, uniform…I would always, always answer them. Even if I didn’t know what the right thing to say was, I’d give them an answer. It might not have always been what they wanted to hear, but teens like a challenge - and need to be challenged - if they want to learn and grow too.
I have to say, this was quite possibly the best way to make my classroom a safe space for both teachers, students and parents. It cultivates an environment of trust, an environment where teenagers can be themselves - and by extension, one where they will listen and learn.
Listen and don’t promise to fix
As adults and as teachers there is a tendency and expectation perhaps that we must fix and find solutions for everything. In a recent podcast with Harry Moore, founder of TfNL, a fitness platform dispelling fitness myths and providing authentic fitness education, we discussed this incessant need to fix. Let’s ease this pressure (parents and teachers, and students!): you don’t need to fix everything.
Teenagers are experiencing so much for the very first time - and not all of it is, in the conventional sense, pretty. They also know as much as they do in a moment of time (like most of us, if we're being honest). Sometimes, they just need you to listen and be there for them. They might need you to reassure them, to tell them you’re there to listen, to point them in a direction that might help. But they don’t need you to guide them to a ‘happily ever after’. Sometimes they might lash out at you (I have SO much experience with this as I’m sure most parents and teachers do): just breathe, remind them of the boundaries and give them space.
Above all else, they shouldn’t be told their feelings aren’t normal. I say this because our incessant need to make everything happy and stress-free is admirable in theory, but in practice does not serve a teenage student (or adult) well.
Instead, listen. Empathise by putting yourself in their shoes. Remind them they have someone to trust in you and you can help with some well-meaning advice if they want and need it. Sometimes our personal lived experiences, books and articles, can help and provide teenagers with critical thinking, but not always. Don’t feel the need to impose, judge or invalidate the way a teenager is feeling just because you think you know better.
I know it’s hard and it’s a natural adult-induced instinct many of us fight. But in the grand scheme of things, listening without judgment and expectations can create the safest most trusting space that students need at a pretty vulnerable time in their lives.
Laugh. Crack a joke. Be human
I remember in my first year of teaching a colleague telling me never to smile in the first two terms of teaching. I was also told not to tell the kids too much about myself. As a new teacher, I followed the 'advice'. It was quite possibly the worst advice I was ever given and led to me absolutely hating my first year of teaching. Even worse, I started on such a bad foot with a few of my classes.
Laughter really is the best medicine. As soon as I reintroduced myself to my classes, we had the best time. And it lasted throughout my career, in every school.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes teenagers will cross boundaries. They’ll take the laughter too far. They might crack an inappropriate joke or make a mistake. That’s ok - that’s where our experience as adults and teachers really does make a difference. And, I think it’s when teenagers learn the most meaningful lessons too.
Teenagers aren’t hard work. Not knowing how to listen to them and not respecting them makes it hard work. Sometimes teaching Shakespeare or Pythagorean theory to a group of students working towards inventions, environments and cultures we don't know very much about is tricky. But focusing on authentic relationships, boundaries, good intentions and learning with them is all you need to make those lessons a little more inclusive and a little more than bearable.
All views are my own and experienced based.