Posted on October 9, 2019 | By Lisa Triani
All Things TEFL
29th Mar 2019
Teenagers get a bad rap. Their bustling hormones, changeable moods, reliance on social media and cool façade often result in teachers tearing their hair out. Even your most brilliant planned lessons can easily fade into a power struggle as you try to get someone stubborn to participate – and then you can end up doubting yourself and your ability to inspire learning!
Even the most insightful teacher, who knows how confusing it is to be a teenager (we have all been there, haven’t we?), can sometimes wonder how on earth to go about teaching teenagers.
We have put together a few tips for you to get the most out of working with teens: practical ways for you to maximise their learning, keep your cool and get past the complex layers of adolescence to the curious and innovative learners below the surface.
#1 Change it up!
All learners need to be a little out of their comfort zone in order to reach new goals. That saying “If you want to get somewhere you have never been before, do something you have never done before” definitely applies to learning a language. Doubly so with teens, who have a depth of interest and capacity for focus on some days, and on other days, a total aversion to the status quo or whatever is expected of them.
If you want to keep your class engaged while teaching teenagers, you need to change things around, often. That includes during the course of the lesson – moving from pair work to group work; from a studious listening task to something that requires moving around the room – as well as over the entire course. There needs to be some repetition and familiarity in the class, but your teen students should never be able to predict exactly what and when is going to happen every time they see you. Designing the learning journey in this way keeps things fresh and also ensures that you are meeting the needs of all kinds of learners, from kinesthetic, to visual and so on.
#2 Setting goals
In adolescence, we are neurologically programmed not to try – apparently thanks to a deeply programmed survival instinct which protects us from failure whilst our brains are developing. So, it can be highly motivating to achieve short term wins. These wins can be as simple as being able to use a new grammar form or set of vocabulary correctly by the end of the lesson, acing a debate or being on the winning side of a charades game. Whatever the form, make sure that when teaching teenagers you are creating opportunities for them to experience their own progress in a very concrete and practical way. This will afford them the energy and challenge that can spur on new learning.
#3 Give praise where it’s due
It is a sad truth that we often hear about the things we get wrong much more loudly and hastily than what we get right. Don’t let this be the case in your classroom! All learners need ongoing praise and acknowledgement to know when they are on track and in order to keep growing. Teaching teenagers English is like being a fitness instructor – a big part of your job is coaching your students through the hard bits and helping them to realise they CAN do it. Teens more than any other age group need this support, even while they may give the impression that they don’t need it, don’t want it or are indifferent to it. Give it anyway.
#4 Take yourself seriously and they will too
In that stage of life where you are somewhere between child and adult, where you want to participate, rebel and discover all at once, it is essential that you can trust the words and actions of those who expect your respect. If you make an agreement with your teen learners – keep it. If you outline a consequence to a certain behaviour – follow through with it.
For example, if you have an agreement in your class (we recommend setting the agreements together with the students if you want them to have any traction) that only English can be spoken during class time and that the consequence for not doing so is to sing the verse of a song in English, then make sure the very first time it happens, everything stops until a verse is sung. This will ensure that students can take you and themselves seriously.
#5 Don’t take anything personally
You can create lesson plans that would wow film producers with their flair and flow, you can follow all the tips on this blog and hundreds more – and there will still be days where the energy in the class is flat. There are times when your best designed activities don’t elicit fluent use of the language and some of the students may seem like they would rather be anywhere but the classroom. This is of course true for all age groups, but none quite as cyclical as those between the ages of 13 – 18.
Remember that all you can do is your best at teaching teenagers: you are responsible for creating the space for learning to happen, but you can’t do it for them. Have a back-up plan or two up your sleeve for days like these, such as a fun game reviewing something the students are already familiar with or a task that requires teamwork. With a bit of flexibility and a tough skin, you will be able guide your class through any waters and still get some learning done.
#6 Know your audience
You have to know your market to be able to deliver the goods! The same goes with teaching: get to know your teens so that you can capture their interest with topics, contexts and outcomes that are relevant to them. Get them to design adventure trips, narrate fashion shows, write content for marketing material for an imaginary business they create – match their everyday passions with actual life skills that will be handy for them, over and above the language outputs.
#7 Enjoy them!
What’s the secret to earning teens’ trust and interest? With some exceptions (most of which will have nothing whatsoever to do with you), the trick is simple: enjoy the time you spend with them. These percolating adults each contain a landscape of emotions, ideas and insights that you may just uncover if you spend time getting to know their world. They will notice your genuine interest and, with some tricks and tips in your toolbox, teaching teenagers could become an interesting discovery for you and for them. Worst case scenario: you get through the lesson. Best case scenario: you and your students leave the classroom with so much more than you went in with. Good luck!
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