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Virginia Journal of Education

Getting Along with Teenagers

It’s not really that complicated, says an award-winning Bedford County teacher.

by David Webb

In their nearly 300-page book, Kids Don’t Learn From People They Don’t Like, authors David Aspy and Flora Roebuck lay out the results of a three-year study of 10,000 students and 500 teachers in two states in the early 1970s. They could have saved a lot of time and paper: The study’s conclusion is offered, in dramatically un-suspenseful fashion, on the book’s title page.

That’s OK—I didn’t need to read it, anyway.
The idea expressed in the book’s glass-half-full title has always seemed obvious to me. What perplexes me is some teachers don’t seem to get that. I’ve molded my entire approach to teaching around this idea. I don’t have research data to support anything I’m about to say—just 24 years of teaching at the secondary level, during which I’ve made and learned from hourly mistakes.

So, after a couple decades of dealing with teenagers, here is my list of Seven Things that will help you relate to your teen students in a more meaningful way and, I believe, increase not only their appreciation for that which you’re teaching, but also their level of achievement in your class.

Thing 1:  Meet them where they are. Teenagers want desperately to be treated like adults—they might want this one thing more than anything else. Whether they are adults, legally or emotionally, is irrelevant. We know, from studies of educational psychology and human development, that the frontal lobe of the human brain (the region that acts as the center of reasoning, impulse control, judgment, insight, decision making and emotional control) does not fully develop until at least age 23 in most people—some recent studies suggest it may be into the 30s for some people.

One way or the other, teens are literally physically incapable of making sound decisions on a consistent basis, so they need the guidance of adults in all areas of their lives. So forgive them their developmental circumstances (forgiveness is a necessary component to any relationship, but especially when dealing with teenagers) and talk to them as equals. Teenagers, especially in high school, do not respond to authoritarian rule—they are by their very nature rebellious and anti-authority. They will respect those they feel have respect for them.

Thing 2:  Get to know them. Though they want to be treated as adults, they’re still in most ways just little kids. They want people to notice them, and they crave approval. If they can’t get approval, they will settle for being noticed….sometimes by any means necessary, including all manner of less-than-appropriate behaviors. Engage your students in conversation. Open your room/office to them during non-class time. Sometimes they will come to you for academic help; sometimes they just want to chat. I find eating lunch with students to be very rewarding. 
While in college, I spent several summers working for a church camp in the mountains of North Carolina.  One of the key precepts of that camp was the “ministry of mealtime,” based on the idea that families often share their most concentrated moments of “quality bonding time” at the dinner table. Kids eat in my office every day—several of them. It’s kind of a tradition, and I love it. Sometimes I don’t even enter the conversation, I just let them talk. I learn a lot that way, and I really believe it strengthens my students’ trust in me. Being liked and being trusted are indispensable partners.

Thing 3:  Don’t demonize the things they think of as normal. Technology is the wedge that has driven the generation gap to perhaps its widest separation in history. Our current students do not know a world in which they find information in books, have to go to the library to do research, have to wait until later to answer a question from someone not in the room, or can’t simply touch a screen to get almost anything they want instantly. Nor do they care about that—it’s the same old “when I was a boy we walked five miles in the snow to school” yarn that has always made kids roll their collective eyes. 

Society will never go backward—it is our job to assimilate to their world, not vice versa. Expecting them to give up their way of life simply because “we didn’t need all that stuff” is just plain dumb, and nothing will build a wall between you and them faster than trying to cram that particular Genie back in its bottle! The same goes for tattoos and piercings, and it has always been that way for hairstyles and fashion. That’s the world in which we live, and none of that stuff makes a kid a bad person, or deserving of our scorn/disapproval (see Thing 2).

Thing 4:  Your reputation precedes you. From one class to the next, one year to the next, one generation to the next—any length of time, really—it is very difficult to shake a perception that people have of you based on what other people report. So, sometimes we have to dig ourselves out of the “perception hole” before we can develop a trust-based relationship with our students. I hear my students talk all the time about this teacher or that, and sometimes they’re exchanging second- or third-hand knowledge—“I hear she’s really cool” or “My friend said he’s really mean and overreacts to everything.” If they’re talking in and around my office and classroom, they’re talking everywhere—at home, on the bus, in the cafeteria, online. And their parents talk more than they do. We are not anonymous after the first week on the job. 

What’s being said about you?

Thing 5:  Know what you’re talking about. That would seem to go without saying, but apparently it needs to be considered. A few years ago, several of my students reported finding the entire syllabus and all the assignments for one of their Advanced Placement classes on the website of a teacher in another state. Their teacher had pirated the entire timeline for their class from someone else. Perception is reality for most people—for those students, their teacher lost all credibility—they viewed her as a cheater. I’m not going to get into a discussion of the ethics of that particular situation (that’s another article). I want to concentrate on the revelation it provides: Kids can spot a phony a mile away with blindfolds on. They may not know the material you’re supposed to be teaching them just yet, but they can certainly tell when you don’t know it!

I’ve also found students to be forgiving if I admit right up front that I don’t know the answer to a particular question. My students (thank goodness) do not expect me to be omniscient—just competent and prepared.
Thing 6:  Teach with passion. Teach what you teach as if it is the only thing. Teach with reckless abandon. Show your kids why you love what you’re teaching. I teach music (I’m a band director and AP Music Theory teacher), so we listen to music in class regularly, and we listen to an eclectic mix—some days it’s orchestral, some days it’s modern jazz, some days it’s pop music. It’s all music, and the sooner my students understand that I understand that and am OK with it, the better. It goes along with Thing 3—demonizing the music they like would make it impossible for me to get them to appreciate the music I like. (And don’t get caught up in the silly nonsense of placing a relative importance level on one subject over another. We teach kids lots of different things as a method of constructing neural pathways—literally irrigating the brain. They are all important, or as important as we make them in our classrooms.) 
Upon reflection, I’ve found that many of the subjects I once thought I wasn’t very good at were taught by teachers who lacked passion. Conversely, the subjects in which I excelled were usually taught by people who made it seem both important and exciting. And I tended to like those teachers better. Correlation? I’m certain of it. I remember getting relatively low marks in a math class one semester of high school, then getting far better grades the next semester in a different teacher’s class (same subject). I didn’t suddenly increase my aptitude for math over Winter Break. I went from a teacher who taught like she’d rather be doing just about anything else to a teacher who engaged me. I liked him, and I felt pretty sure he liked me, too. Suddenly, I didn’t dread math class. Now, if you don’t love the subject you teach, we have a problem. Might be time to consider a career change. Seriously. Kids need to be engaged by their teachers, and they won’t be engaged by people who aren’t engaged themselves. 
Thing 7:  Like them. As I said earlier, kids can spot a phony. They know if you really like them or if you’re just pretending, and they’ll certainly know if you don’t like them at all. Amend the title of the book mentioned in the beginning of this article to “Kids Don’t Like People Who Don’t Like Them.” That really goes for adults, too, doesn’t it? I think we all find it hard to like someone who doesn’t share a mutual sentiment. So, if we are to buy into the idea postulated by Aspy and Roebuck’s book, we have to prove to our students that we genuinely like them first. 
You don’t have to compromise your standards for student conduct or academic performance in your classroom—be clear about what you expect, keep it positive (“Do this” as opposed to “Thou shalt not”), explain the “why” (teenagers always want to know why, and “Because I said so” is an insufficient answer—it’s a cop out), and be consistent in implementing said standards. More importantly than anything else, show them they are valued and they are liked. Do that for them and they’ll respond in kind, meeting (exceeding?) your expectations for both behavior and achievement.
So here it is: A positive and trusting relationship must exist between student(s) and teacher in order for learning and demonstrated achievement to occur. That positive and trusting relationship will be difficult, if not impossible, to forge if we as teachers expect our students to climb the mountain to meet us, don’t show an interest in them as individuals, look down our noses at them for being who they are, foster a negative reputation about ourselves, aren’t armed with nearly boundless knowledge of our respective disciplines, teach with a lack of conviction, and/or don’t genuinely and obviously like them as people. 
This may not hold up as a syllabus for a Curriculum & Instruction or Pedagogy class, but it’s essential nonetheless. The bottom line is we’re not designing software or constructing a building—we’re teaching people. Without the human element, we miss the mark.

Webb, a member of the Bedford County Education Association, teaches music and directs the band at Jefferson Forest High School. He was the county’s and Virginia’s Region 5 Teacher of the Year in 2013.


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