I learned, or rather re-learned, a couple of important lessons about working with adolescents recently and I've been thinking about them quite often.
The other day, I received a wonderful, detailed three-page thank-you letter from a student in which she very sweetly detailed the things she and other students appreciated. (Incidentally, this was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me and I relished every word! But that's a different story).
Besides being really wonderful on a personal level, this also gave me the opportunity to get some insight into the kinds of things that adolescents value and appreciate.
As I read and re-read this letter, I was fascinated by something. Almost everything she thought significant enough to mention was something that most adults would probably consider to be on the smaller, less-significant side of what a teacher does for students. In fact, I was a little surprised by the things that she remembered and noted.
This dear student didn't mention the big, life-changing sort of thing. Rather, she mentioned things like buying the students pizza at the end of a long dress rehearsal, or keeping a cabinet of snacks they can access during after-school rehearsals. Calling them silly nicknames or just being cheerful. Being patient and not angry when someone makes a mistake--even a big one. Laughing along with them at things they think are funny
Of all the things she listed, there was only one thing that an adult would have considered to be terribly serious or significant.
That's the first lesson. When I teach kids, I am going into their territory, trying to get them to follow me to mine. I'm not one of these romantics about kids--I don't think they are superior to adults and I don't think the world would be better if we acted like kids. I think our job is to lead them to adulthood.
That being said, we have to start where they are. We have to respect what is important to them and we have to try to speak their language, so to speak (not literally. Nothing is worse than an adult who tries to use cool teen vernacular. In fact, I do this as a way to annoy my daughter. It's so grating)
The second lesson I learn comes from looking for the common pattern in all these things she mentioned. I see a few things, and they teach me a great deal.
There is a line Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol that I really like. Scrooge, seeing his first employer says, "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil."
It occurred to me that adolescents spend their lives in a situation where they are always the subordinate. They are (and should be!) under the direction of adults--parents, teachers, coaches.
But when I think of how completely we adults control their world, I consider the quote from Dickens. We, the adults, have tremendous power to make their lives happy or unhappy. I find that quite sobering and need to remember that. It is so easy to snap when I'm in a bad mood or to act irrationally. And being human, this will happen. And sometimes I think it needs to, honestly. But it makes me consider very carefully whether I make them happy or unhappy when they are under my authority.
I think perhaps that is why this student, and presumably, her peers, responded so much to these ostensibly little things. I suspect that getting pizza made them feel cared for and valued--that they were important. I don't know that they really sense that a lot. They may hear it, but I'm not sure how often we model that they really are important.
Third lesson: I also really believe that most adults (myself included) do not fully realize just how much adolescents value fun, nor how important fun can be.
There is an old quote that one hears often about children and play: "The work of childhood is play." The idea is that children learn what they need to learn by engaging in play, that they develop in important ways by playing--physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively and so on.
I am coming to believe that the work adolescents is fun. I'm serious about that. I believe that in many ways, adolescents learn and develop by having fun. Adolescents are under so many pressures--social, physical, academic--and I think fun helps relax that pressure temporarily. I really believe it is the language they speak.
This reminds me that if I really want them to learn something deeply, to remember something, that I need to make it fun.
I believe that some day my students will also realize that I taught them some bigger, more serious things. I've certainly been trying to do that.
But this letter reminded me that when I'm trying to teach adolescents, when I want to reach them, I need to meet them on their terms--and those terms involve fun, snacks, and laughter. And if I meet them there, they might listen to me when I want to speak. And I would do well not to minimize the things that get me on their ground as trivial.
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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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