Written by Naomi Moir.
Hands up who would happily go back to being 14 or 15 years old? My hand is staying firmly by my side! Although most of us would love to turn the clock back a bit, I think for the most part, we wouldn’t choose to go back to being teenagers.
Being a teenager isn’t easy – it’s a really awkward period of transition. For boys, their limbs are suddenly long and gangly, and their feet 3 sizes bigger. They can’t move without knocking into something or banging a knee or an elbow. For girls, well there’s the fact that they’re now towering head and shoulders over most the boys, not to mention the development of other aspects of their bodies! No wonder they moan and groan when we ask them to stand up and move around in class – there’s all sorts of opportunities for embarrassment!
When I first started teaching teenagers I went in with the attitude of ‘I’m a young, enthusiastic teacher, I’m going to be able to connect with these teens and they will enjoy learning and be motivated and it will all be great!’ Within my first year, I felt all that enthusiasm and energy evaporating! I spent lesson after lesson trying to figure out what it was that I needed to do to ‘reach’ them and get them interested. Sometimes things would fall into place and work, and then the very next lesson, we’d be back to the drawing board again! I blamed it on their hormones and grumbled about how difficult and frustrating they were to teach – I began to dislike them (a lot!) and to dread my lessons with them.
Then I stumbled upon an article about the development of the teenage brain (can’t remember where it was now….), which lead me to research further and eventually to this book: Why are they so Weird? Barbara Strauch, Bloomsbury. Although the book is a bit scientific at times, I did find it interesting and I did take away a few key points that have helped me with working with teenagers.
First and foremost is that it’s more than hormones affecting how teenagers behave. We are often quick to blame the issues with teens on their hormones, but a lot of research has been done in the last 10-15 years on the teenage brain. Initially it was thought that the brain stopped physically growing/changing quite early on in our development, certainly before we reached out teens. However, recent research has shown that during our teen years, the brain (the frontal lobe or cortex in particular) is undergoing significant physical changes. Just before puberty there’s a growth spurt in the brain, which is then followed by a thinning or pruning of the wiring over the teenage years. The part of the brain going through these changes is responsible for things like; decision-making, planning, the control of emotions, empathy and the understanding of other people’s facial expressions. No wonder we see some of the behaviour we do from our teens!
Although this information wasn’t a ‘quick fix’ for my lessons with teens, it did give me a greater understanding and most importantly, more tolerance. It made me think back to my teenage years and how it felt to be in that age of transition. When things didn’t go according to plan in lessons, I blamed myself and them less, and even found myself enjoying classes with them! It had an impact on practical aspects of my teaching too. For example, I included more short-term, tangible goals and built in more structure and planning to activities, ensuring they had the support they needed to make choices/decisions etc.
Food for thought
As I said, not a ‘quick fix’ – and all my classes didn’t suddenly run smoothly – but interesting ‘food for thought’ nonetheless! Is teaching teenagers something you struggle with or thrive on? What is it that helps you with working with this notoriously difficult age group? I’d love to hear ideas and tips, and your thoughts on the above.