In my last entry I wrote about how teenagers naturally have a strong focus on peer relationships, and the effect this can have on class dynamics, and on my teaching. In this entry, I'd like to consider another teenage stereotype - the grumpy rebel - and reflect on the surprising benefits of this difficult aspect of adolescence, and suggest ways to keep your cool when faced with it.
A second feature of adolescence is a growing need to challenge authority. This may sound like a negative process, but it is important as a teacher to recognise how important it is. Without the ability to challenge authority, we would always remain mindlessly or unhappily stuck in the status quo. When we teach students critical thinking, this is exactly what we are trying to encourage them to do: challenge authority.
The trouble is that teenagers generally haven’t had time to learn to do this politely, reasonably, or in moderation. It is a deep urge which breaks out of them, unchannelled and unrefined. It can come across as rudeness, either spoken or implied: “This article is so boring.” “This talk is pointless, he’s just trying to sell his product.” “But everyone knows that women don’t make good bosses.” or rolled eyes when asked to put their phone away.
My instinctive reaction is usually either to reassert my authority, telling the student off for rudeness and insisting that they do things my way – or else to be overcome with a fear of disagreement, and to mentally crumble, letting them have their own way.
Neither of these is productive: the teenagers are in fact right that authority should be challenged, and that questioning the rationale behind decisions is an extremely valuable process both for them and us. On the other hand, I am right that they must learn to express these challenges positively and sensitively. This is not a process which happens magically one day around the age of 21. It happens as teenagers become aware of how they are coming across, and as they see good examples of conflict being skilfully explored and resolved.
An attitude that works for me is to focus on negotiation, rather than total inflexibility or total surrender. Taking a deep breath if necessary, I try to hear and accept the underlying challenge, without being thrown by the unfortunate manner in which it is given. I try to treat teenagers’ concerns as seriously as I would treat an adult’s, and then embark on negotiating a solution reasonably. At the same time, it’s legitimate (and possibly very helpful) to correct an impolite manner, or to offer an alternative viewpoint but I try to remember that we all have difficulty negotiating conflict gracefully, and since these young people are taking their first wobbly steps in this area, I may need to make allowances.
The final part of this reflection (Awkwardness) will follow soon...