This summer, I’ve had moments where a few of the teenagers I’ve been teaching have really got under my skin, and other moments where they've really inspired me. I’d forgotten how different it is to teach a whole group of 16-18-year-olds, compared to one 17-year-old in a class of 20-somethings. I’ve been reflecting on why these differences exist, and how to deal with them, in terms of what’s going on both in their heads and in mine.
At this age, peer relationships are far more important than any other relationship, and group dynamics are correspondingly affected. Teenagers feel a huge pressure to gain the approval of their peer group, usually by fitting in. They don’t have the confidence and emotional resilience to cope well with being different, and therefore groups consisting of similar ages quickly become close-knit. In a summer school situation, as influential group members arrive and leave frequently, this can result in sudden swings in the group’s character, behaviour, and preferences. This can make it hard to cater for students’ likes and dislikes, as a group that demand games for grammar practice as often as possible can swiftly mutate into a group that thinks games are beneath them, or a group who are left cold by any kind of current affairs topic can be galvanised by a couple of new students into a hotbed of political controversy.
Another result of the importance of peer relationships is that it’s easy for the teacher to feel sidelined. Teaching adults, I get used to forming relationships with students who understand that I am also human, and who respect me and interact with me as such. But no matter how many cliques there may be in a class of teenagers, the ultimate clique is the students against the teacher. I find myself feeling left out, feeling paranoid about being disliked, and sometimes undermined in my professional judgement, if I make a decision about content or classroom management that key members of the class disagree with.
It reminds me of Christmas with siblings: old teenage patterns of thought recur, and I revert to insecurities and behaviour patterns I thought I had left behind long ago. In response, I need to actively hold on to the security I have gained in fifteen years of adulthood: knowing who I am, daring to be myself and not trying to fit in, remaining confident in my ability to do my job even when questioned. I need to be thick-skinned in the face of isolation, remembering that I am generally liked by my students and colleagues.
Parts 2 and 3 (Challenging Authority and Awkwardness) will follow soon ...