Every teacher has felt challenged by teaching teenagers at some point, mostly because of one key factor: motivation.
Or in teen learners’ case, lack of motivation. While adult learners normally come to class keen to make the most of their lesson time and kids can normally be enthused through fun activities and praise, teen learners are a little different. Their participation in class is not guaranteed. In fact, as their sense of independence develops, they love to question authority and resist doing things they don’t see the point in.
So, what’s a teacher to do with a class of indifferent teens?
Well, getting teenagers enthused is possible, and well worth the effort– at their best, teen learners can be curious, insightful, creative and great fun. All it takes is a little experience, a slightly different approach and a few simple tricks and tips to turn your teen classroom into a productive and positive place.
Provide rules and routines, but be flexible
Teenagers might be vocal about challenging the system, but they still find authority and stability reassuring, so:
- Set up a classroom routine that you follow in each lesson, and
- Make the class rules clear and enforce them firmly and fairly.
Similar to when you teach kids, it’s a good rule of thumb to start out strict so the boundaries are clear, then loosen up as you and your class get to know and trust each other. Procedures for beginning and ending the lesson, seating plans, and turn-taking structures are all great tools to use with teenagers.
However, one thing to note when you’re putting these rules and routines in place: teens will be much more receptive if they understand why they’re being asked to do something. Accept questions as legitimate rather than as challenges to your authority, and take the time to explain how your classroom structures are beneficial to the group.
And, crucially, don’t be afraid to adapt the rules if your teen learners can reason why a change is necessary. Your goal is to provide boundaries, but also to show you take your teen learners opinions and concerns seriously.
Involve your teen learners in decision making
Giving your teen learners a sense of ownership and belonging in the classroom helps involve them in the learning process and build motivation. A great way to do this is by integrating decision making into your lessons.
In practical terms this means that, while you as the teacher should decide the broad structure and goals of each lesson, you can let your students make smaller decisions about how they want to learn. For example, you might ask your teen students if they’d prefer to complete an activity individually or in groups, let them choose which of the lessons tasks to work on first, or decide with them as a group what the submission date for their homework should be.
A good rule of thumb for these decisions is to provide two or three options to choose between and go with the group majority. Building in this kind of structured autonomy works really well with teenagers as it provides the right balance between independence and security, and the opportunity for them to voice their opinions – something most teens love to do!
Another simple way to let your students steer the learning process is to ask for feedback. Finding out what they’ve enjoyed (or not) in class will give you useful insight into what kind of activities motivate your teen learners and which make them lose interest. One note on negative feedback, though: rather than take it personally, accept that your students will naturally find some activities more engaging than others and be prepared to explain why any activities they don’t enjoy are part of the lesson.
Set the right tone in your classroom
One thing pretty common to all teenagers is worrying about what other people think of them. Whether it’s their fellow students, their parents or their teachers, the opinions of other people matter to teenagers. Setting the right tone in the classroom can help reduce anxiety and improve learning conditions for your students.
Getting it right comes down to three factors:
Make sure your students feel respected by enforcing basic classroom etiquette like listening when other people are speaking and taking a hard line on any negative behaviour such as laughing at others.
A lot of language learners find speaking a new language awkward and embarrassing. Teens, more than any other age group, are sensitive to being laughed at or made to feel silly. A great way to encourage a supportive atmosphere in the classroom is to use authentic praise. You can (and should) model giving sincere praise as a teacher, but building in time for your students to give positive and sincere feedback to each other can also be highly effective.
While it might be tempting to become a kind of friend-figure to your teen learners (and building up a good rapport with them can certainly help motivate the class) it’s important to maintain authority and a little distance. A good rule of thumb is to take a genuine supportive interest in their lives and their opinions, but don’t offer details about your own unless they ask. And even then, be sparing. You want to be friendly, but not a friend.
The most important friendships you can facilitate in the classroom are between your students. They are sure to want to get to know each other, so set up an environment in which they can form class-wide friendships by encouraging group work and making sure students work with and sit next to different people each week.
Bring your students’ interests into the classroom
Finally, one of the best things about teaching teenagers is how passionate they are about the things that interest them. Whereas kids may not have developed strong interests of their own yet, and adults don’t always have time to get deep into their hobbies, teens generally love to talk about the things they love.
If your teen learners are enthusiastic about particular topics like films, sports, their friends, or their futures these can provide great material for presentations, writing exercises or group discussions. Alternatively, you might find that particular activities like games, creative tasks or group work are what really interests your teens. If none of these work, try thinking about your means of delivery. Few teens would not enjoy being allowed to use their phones to do research for a project, or being able to choose some background music during a writing exercise.
Either way, take the time to find out what intrinsically interests and motivates your teen learners and let them explore these interests in the classroom. Doing so should mean that your classes become full of genuine interest and relevant to your teen learners’ lives.
And there you have it. The winning formula for a positive productive teenage classroom is finding the right balance between a stable, supportive atmosphere and opportunities for teenagers to be autonomous and express their interests. Simple right? Well, not quite. In reality this may take a little time, experience and even some specialized training to get right, but it is well worth the effort.
All the factors that can make teens so challenging to teach also make it so rewarding when you get it right. And when you do, you might find your opinionated, creative, funny teen learners become your favourite students of all.
- CIEE offers an online specialist class in Teaching Teenagers.