Years ago, I was acquainted with someone who had fled to this country from the Eastern Bloc, before the Iron Curtain fell. In his own country, he had been a doctor of some prestige. Here, however, his qualifications and training were not recognized by the agencies who accredit such things. He was going to back to school to get all the degrees and credentials he needed--beginning with a bachelor's degree. It was a frustrating, even humiliating, thing for him because he felt that he knew everything already.
As he advanced in his studies, he found that his training and experience was decades behind the knowledge and practice in the U.S. While the structures of the human body hadn't changed, the way diseases were diagnosed and treated, the medicines and equipment were vastly different in a way he could not possibly have understood.
It would have been irresponsible to allow him to practice medicine. At the same time, though, he wasn't a savage or fool and his professors wisely treated him as an expert who was brushing up his skills as opposed to a brand new under-grad. He was given some assistantships and so on and, to the extent possible, was treated in a manner befitting his experience--even though he couldn't be granted permission to practice at the time.
In other words, the external situation didn't change, but the way his professors treated him did. And it made all the difference in making a difficult situation better.
I have learned over the years that, perhaps more than anything, adolescents want to be taken seriously. They see themselves as being mature adults. They see themselves as being mature and rational, capable of making their own decisions and charting their own course in life.
They have the awareness and consciousness of adults. They are old enough to look, act, and dress like adults. Physically, they look like small adults.
And there's something else that I think we don't fully appreciate. In their day-to-day lives, in their world of school and friends, they are adults--meaning they are competent, autonomous individuals who have freedom and responsibility. They make complex decisions, they do work, they navigate difficult situations, make cost/benefit assessments, respond to all kinds of incentives and disincentives. Being a teenager today means being fairly competent in a variety of skills and systems. Like my friend, they are experts and authorities in their own world.
Of course, what we understand that they don't is that their competence in their world does not endow them with competence in our own. But they don't see that. They don't understand, generally, why their parents, teachers, and society in general conspire to rob them of their freedom when they are perfectly capable of running their own lives.
So it's no wonder they want the freedoms and privileges they see adults have and chafe at the perceived indignity of being treated as children.
Of course, unlike my friend, they are children. They aren't ready yet to bear adult level responsibility. Like my friend, they don't know what they don't know. They don't have the self-discipline, decision making skills, judgment, or experience that will allow them to use the freedoms of maturity in a way that will be a blessing, not a curse.
Just as my friend was not ready to be allowed to practice independently, they are not ready to be given complete freedom. Adolescence should be an extended, supervised internship, not pre-mature adulthood. The reality is that they are immature. Even the best of them. I think it's silly and destructive to let an adolescent have the privileges and responsibilities of an adult.
But, just as my friend was treated respectfully by his professors, just as they recognized his competence and knowledge where they could while still teaching him and mentoring him, teens will respond if adults approach them in a similar stance.
One of the best ways I've found to do this is simply to listen to them and take their concerns, joys, and woes seriously. I have found that they love to talk about their concerns and frustrations if I just listen and don't scoff. Their lives are controlled in every dimension by adults. But they see themselves as being competent to manage their own lives--this creates a great deal of frustration for them and talking about it can help.
It also builds their trust when I just listen and don't tell them immediately how ridiculous or trivial their concerns are. Sometimes, when they are done, I will gently explain why I think they are wrong. But more often, I just listen. Treating their feelings and thoughts as real and genuine, worthy of being listened to can go a long way.
I've also shifted the way I treat students over the years. When I first started teaching, I treated them as my friends. I was not all that much older than they were at the time, so it seemed natural. That didn't go well because they treated me the same way--which meant that they did not do what I asked them to do or treat me as an adult who had authority.
I then went to the other extreme, channelling Prof. McGonagall from Harry Potter and being incredibly strict. That didn't work either because it wasn't the real me and we were all unhappy.
Over many years, I have learned to approach things in a different way. I now try to treat them as a professor might treat an assistant. I have tried to create areas where we can both agree on letting them have responsibility, where they can act is if they are competent adults--with freedom and responsibility--but where the parameters are defined so they can't mess things up too much when (not if) they make a mistake. If they prove to me that they can't handle this, then I ratchet back their freedom to more appropriate parameters.
This can be in small things--for example, letting them sit by their friends until they prove they can't pay attention--at which time they get a seating chart. It might be in larger things--having a student be the stage manager or choreographer for our large productions, or an assistant for a summer camp.
The guiding principle is that I try to find an area where we can agree on them having adult-level freedom and responsibility. My job is 1) to make sure that appropriate parameters provide a safety-net so that if they fail, it won't be disastrous or hurt them or anyone else; 2) to see that they have the training and teaching and support needed to succeed; 3) to provide specialized training they might not have; 4) to help encourage and motivate them; and 5) to provide supervision and impose necessary consequences by pulling the parameters back if they don't live up to their responsibilities.
I don't do this perfectly and I'll admit that it's much more difficult to do this at home than at school. Sometimes I meet a student who, for whatever reason, simply cannot be trusted with any responsibility.
But far more often than not, this approach has made a huge difference in creating situations where the student can learn, I can teach, and we can all feel good about it. And that, in my opinion, is the triple-crown.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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